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California Divorce Checklist

Dmytro Liubchenko

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 14, 2023

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California Divorce Checklist

Divorce can be a stressful and emotionally demanding time. Many people find the situation challenging to navigate, especially if they aren’t adequately prepared before the process begins.

Getting a divorce in California can be complicated, so you should take things step-by-step. Plus, you don’t want to jump into the divorce process until you’re ready.

To simplify things, we’ve compiled this divorce checklist so you can easily prepare for divorce in California. It will help you make the right choices for yourself and your former spouse, while also protecting your interests, before the divorce begins.

California Divorce Checklist

17 Steps to Prepare for Divorce in California

Divorce preparations consist of various aspects.

They are more than getting and filing the correct legal documents, although these are vital preparation steps to every divorce. You must be ready for all scenarios to be on the safe side.

With that in mind, here are essential steps to take before you start your divorce proceedings in California.

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1. Look Into Divorce Basics

Although every divorce case is unique, the core aspects stay the same. So, start by gathering basic information about California divorce laws.

Later, you can get down to the specifics of your situation and how certain laws and court rules apply to your divorce.

Here are the core aspects of every divorce case in California:

  • Residency Requirements: either spouse must be a state resident for divorce purposes. The general conditions are six months of residency in the state with three months in the same county. You can find these requirements in California Family Code § 2320.
  • Grounds for Divorce: California is a no-fault divorce state and does not require spouses to prove someone’s guilt. Instead, they can use irreconcilable differences or insanity to end a marriage. Look for details in California Family Code §2310.
  • Property Division: spouses must divide their property upon divorce. All assets and debts acquired and owed during the marriage are marital property and will be split in half between the couple. However, many complications may arise for long-term unions with substantial property, businesses, and commingled assets. You can learn about the property laws from Division 7 (§§ 2500-2660) of the Family Code.
  • Child Custody and Support: every divorce includes custody arrangements, visitation schedules, and child support decisions. You can research this topic by looking into §§ 3900-4253 (child support) and §§ 3000-3465 (child custody).
  • Spousal Support (Alimony): one spouse may receive financial support from the other after divorce. Its amount and duration differ from case to case. More details are in §§ 4300-4360 of the California Family Code.
  • A Mandatory Waiting Period: couples in California must wait six months after starting a divorce case to become officially divorced. Even if they obtained the divorce decree earlier than six months from filing, the judge will use a later date on the decree that indicates when the judgment goes into effect. Neither spouse can get a marriage license and get married before that divorce decree’s date. Learn about the waiting period in the Family Code § 2339.

2. Decide How You Want to Divorce.

There are several divorce methods you can use. Your goal should always be to prepare for the most challenging scenario - a contested divorce. However, later, you can discover that your spouse is okay with an amicable, uncontested option.

You won’t know which method will work for you until you and your spouse discuss your marital settlement agreement.

Consider where you both stand and take a look at the options you have.

Uncontested Divorce

An uncontested divorce is the easiest method. First, you and your spouse must agree on essential issues like dividing marital property, arranging child custody, a child support order, and whether or not you’d like to use spousal support.

It also means that you don’t need a divorce lawyer. Instead, you can independently complete the divorce paperwork and file it with your local Superior Court.

Uncontested Divorce With a Divorce Mediator

If you're having trouble reaching crucial decisions, consider using divorce mediation to facilitate your uncontested divorce.

A divorce mediator is a family law expert who acts as an impartial assistant while you’re creating your marital settlement agreement. Mediators won’t make any decisions for you or force you to comply with their opinions.

You can conference with a mediator over the phone or face-to-face. It’s a low-pressure situation and isn’t as financially taxing as hiring lawyers. Mediation costs a fraction of what most people will pay in legal fees. Since you’re both using the same mediator, you can even split the cost.

Your mediator will listen to your concerns and propose solutions that may help you solve your disagreements. You’ll have the final say in what you choose to do.

If your mediator enables you to reach conclusions, you can use the documents and notes your mediator generated to file for an uncontested divorce.

Collaborative Divorce With Lawyers

Collaborative divorce can be a solution for couples who can’t reach conclusions in mediation.

First, each spouse hires a lawyer and a team of divorce professionals during a collaborative divorce. Then, everyone works together to find solutions to disagreements.

You’ll sign an agreement at the beginning of the process that states that you’d both prefer to keep your divorce out of court, and if you decide to go to court, your current lawyers won’t represent you. The agreement keeps you focused on finding solutions outside of court.

You’ll have regular meetings where lawyers and other professionals will give their opinions until you’ve negotiated a divorce settlement with which you’re comfortable. Then, you can use the agreement you negotiated in a collaborative divorce setting to file for an uncontested divorce.

Contested Divorce With Lawyers

A contested divorce is one where spouses cannot agree on at least one aspect of the settlement. In this case, you’ll each hire a lawyer and other family law experts and have a divorce trial in court.

The judge will listen to both arguments and make a final judgment on the contested issues. At the end of a contested divorce, you must abide by the judge’s orders.

A contested divorce is one of the longest, most expensive and stressful ways to get divorced. Only a small percentage of divorces escalate to this point. It’s always best to avoid contested divorce when possible.

3. Organize Your Documents.

California is a community property state, where every asset and debt that either of you obtained during your marriage belongs to both spouses. To divide these assets equally, California courts require a lot of financial documents from both spouses.

They include your tax returns, information on your investments, pension, 401K information, and a detailed property list.

Here are several important documents you will need to collect:

  • Bank statements (savings, checking, and other accounts)
  • Tax returns from the past two years
  • Credit card statements
  • Stocks and bonds certificates or statements
  • Retirement information (individual and employer-sponsored retirement accounts)
  • Payroll stubs for the past several months
  • Income statements
  • Debt records
  • Pension benefit statements
  • Mortgage and loan documents
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health insurance forms
  • Student loans
  • Unemployment compensation information
  • Investment accounts statements
  • Public assistance (SSI, TANT)
  • Social security statements
  • Real estate titles
  • Documents showing the purchase of real estate
  • Vehicle titles
  • Inheritance and trusts information

The divorce process will also require your marriage certificate, as well as birth certificates and social security numbers for the children involved in your divorce. Other documents you might need are the following:

  • Prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement
  • Past judgments you or your spouse obtained, e.g., previous marriages and divorces
  • Pending cases in which you or your children participate
  • Spousal or child support you pay or receive
  • Both parties’ social security numbers

When gathering these important documents, ask your employer or your accountant for copies of some of them. In addition, you may want to keep important documents in a safety deposit box.

Gathering your documentation can take a while, especially if you need to make a lot of requests to other people for help. Therefore, to have every document ahead of time, it is best to start the process as early as possible.

4. Have a Conversation With Your Spouse.

Divorce is a lot easier when both partners are on the same page. If you and your spouse decide that a divorce would be a mutually beneficial solution to your marital issues, you can work together towards an amicable divorce.

To facilitate this situation, avoid accusatory conversations or playing the blame game. Instead, start off the conversation by asking your spouse how they would feel about the possibility of divorce.

Let them process their thoughts and feelings on the matter before you decide what to do next.

Your spouse may feel shocked that you’re in a place where you are considering divorce. They may automatically feel betrayed. Whatever emotion this conversation evokes, let their feelings happen naturally.

5. Check in With Your Kids.

Divorce can be very upsetting to children.

Therefore, it would be best to find a gentle approach to telling them about it. Also, it is important to remember that while you don’t want to involve children in adult issues, you also don’t want to blindside them.

When you and your spouse officially decide that you want a divorce, you should talk to the children about it and what this decision means for their lives.

Give children time to process what’s coming before initiating any changes, if you can. It also may be beneficial to start family counseling with your children to help guide them through the transition period.

Make small changes first. Then, keep informing your children how each next step in your divorce will affect their lives. Whenever possible, emphasize the positives.

Finally, remember that children would much rather live in two happy homes than one unhappy home. So if you work to keep yourself and your environment happy, your children will benefit in the long run.

6. Decide Where to Live During and After Divorce.

You should devise a plan of where you’ll live during and after the divorce proceedings. For example, are you staying in or leaving your marital residence?

If it’s the latter, set aside some time to search for a new home and to obtain current market value information for the marital home.

However, moving out of the house and financing a separate household can be challenging. For this reason, many divorcing couples continue living under the same roof, remaining as amicable as possible. Besides, this may be a better option not to lose property and child custody rights.

For example, suppose you moved out of the family residence, and your spouse and the children stayed. In this case, your spouse may be a better candidate to keep living in the house and get primary custody to avoid disturbing the children.

However, at the same time, staying together in the same house has challenges, too. Continuing to live together may confuse spouses and their children. In some cases, it might interfere with their decision to move on.

If neither spouse wants to leave the family home, they can ask a judge to issue temporary orders.

The judge will consider each party’s best interests and decide whether one spouse should move out. In this case, the temporary orders will contain conditions of the move-out and parenting (visitation) schedules if there are minor children.

7. Work Out a Custody Plan.

Divorce proceedings include child custody and visitation orders. If the couple can agree on a joint parenting plan, their divorce will be less complicated and stressful for them and their children.

Until the court issues any temporary or final orders, you can spend some time deciding what parenting arrangements will be ideal for you. This way, you will be more prepared to discuss child custody during mediation or court hearings.

A typical parenting plan should include the following provisions:

  • Legal (decision-making) custody
  • Physical (residential) custody
  • Parenting time (holidays, vacations, birthdays, etc.)
  • The manner of custody exchanges
  • Child-care expenses (medical and educational bills, daily costs, etc.)
  • Health insurance for children, etc.

Remember that your plan should be in the children’s best interests. So, when the time comes to file it for court approval, the judge can see that you prioritize your child’s needs and well-being above everything else.

8. Consider Logistics When Making Decisions.

One of you is going to move out if you haven’t already.

How close together or far apart are you going to live? Will the distance between the two of you impact child custody? Keep your desired custody arrangement in mind while physically separating from each other.

If you’d like a joint custody arrangement, you must make the right decisions to facilitate that arrangement. For a joint custody situation to be feasible, you must live within a reasonable commute of your child’s school and healthcare providers.

If one of you is moving closer to a family member that lives far away from your child’s home base, a primary custody situation may be better. It would be less disruptive to your children’s lives if you allowed them to attend the same school and utilize the same daily routine.

9. Make an Inventory of Your Personal Property.

When filing for divorce in California, it’s crucial to identify what assets and debts belong to marital property and which ones are separate property. Starting this process earlier can help smooth property division and prevent complications later.

But, more importantly, you can secure your personal property and ensure no part of it will go to your ex-spouse.

The first step is identifying each property item and its type (marital or separate). Some assets are easier to label as personal property. These can be inheritance and gifts, especially if you acquired them before the wedding (California Family Code § 770).

However, even when you know something is your separate property, you still must put them into the legal documents required to complete the preliminary disclosure stage.

Look through the following divorce forms that you will fill out during the proceedings:

  • Schedule of Assets and Debts (FL-142)
  • Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150)
  • Property Declaration (FL-160)

Note that some personal property can rise in value during the marriage. If so, you should identify whether this appreciation was passive or active. For example, if neither spouse did anything to make it happen, it’s a passive appreciation.

However, if one spouse puts in at least some effort that causes the value of personal property to increase, this appreciation might be divided between the spouses. So, make sure you are prepared to deal with this situation.

10. Decide How You’ll Get Divorce Paperwork.

Initiating a divorce in California requires completing various divorce documents. You can either collect and complete all the necessary documentation yourself or hire a lawyer.

In California, you must file several primary forms, followed by other more specific ones.

The mandatory initial legal forms include the following:

  • Petition - Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-100).
  • Summons (FL-110).
  • Declaration under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (FL-105).
  • Response - Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-120). This form is for the non-filing spouse.

The DIY option is preferable when you haven’t accumulated substantial joint property and will not have a problem identifying its value.

Conversely, contemplate hiring a lawyer if you expect a contentious divorce with conflicts on many issues. A legal professional will help you complete the court papers and guide you through the entire divorce process.

There’s also a middle-ground option.

Consider using online divorce services like Divorce.com if you cherish your time and want to quickly get customized and filled-out divorce papers. The fees are more than reasonable compared to hiring a lawyer.

Plus, you’ll save time and nerves on getting the court-required paperwork.

11. Plan for Your Financial Future.

Many people lose money during a divorce, especially if they pay costly legal fees. There are a lot of essential questions you may need to ask yourself to protect your financial future:

  • How would you support yourself after a divorce if you were counting on your spouse?
  • How will child support or alimony payments impact the way you budget?
  • Will divorce change your standard of living?
  • What will happen to your credit score?
  • What should you do to prepare for your independent financial future?

If you start planning for life after divorce before your divorce happens, you’ll be less likely to find yourself in a tough spot. In addition, the earlier you answer these questions, the easier your financial future will be.

It may be time to consider improving your career credentials if you feel an earnings boost is necessary. You’ll also need to work on establishing credit in your name.

Opening a low-interest credit card or two in your name and using your credit responsibly can help your credit recover after a divorce.

12. Consider Repaying the Debts.

Consider refinancing the debts before starting a divorce. Remember, California courts will divide all marital assets (e.g., money in bank accounts) and debts equally.

So, for example, suppose the courts order your spouse to pay up some of the credit card debts or loans, but they failed. In this case, you will cover the financial obligations as the co-borrower, using part of the money from the divorce to repay the loans.

However, if you start by refinancing your marital debts using marital assets before the divorce, you can save your share of post-settlement money in the future.

13. Separate Your Social Media and Streaming Accounts.

You may have passwords saved on shared devices or accounts for social media or streaming services. It’s time to change your personal information and do some password changes. Ensure you’re the only person that has access to your accounts — including Netflix.

If you and your spouse have high tension, it’s best to unfriend or unfollow them on social networks. If you have any of their close friends or family members who would “spy” on you, you should also remove them before setting your accounts to private.

14. Decide If You Need Temporary Court Orders

Negotiating the final aspects of divorce can be lengthy, involving many court hearings and hours of negotiations. In addition, it can require months to list and divide all marital property.

In the meantime, you might have immediate financial hardships and uncertainty about the children’s care while this process is ongoing.

Under these circumstances, requesting temporary court orders to help you and your children through the divorce process may be a good decision.

California law provides several types of temporary orders:

  • Child custody and visitation;
  • Spousal support;
  • Child support;
  • Property protection and usage;
  • Bills and debts management;

You can only obtain these orders if you have an open family case. So, you must file a divorce petition first, then a Request for Order (FL-300) and a form FL-305 if you need an emergency order.

Restraining orders regarding domestic violence will require other forms, such as DV-100, DV-109, and DV-110.

Learning about the process of asking for temporary help in advance can secure critical matters in the future.

For instance, you should find out what forms and proof you need to ask for emergency custody or domestic violence restraining order. In this case, you can react quickly to the unfolding situation.

15. Review Your Will and Your Health Insurance.

You likely share your health insurance with your spouse. If you’re the person who purchased the policy or received it from work, all you need to do is remove them from the policy after you’ve gotten divorced.

However, if you receive your spouse’s insurance benefits, you should purchase your own policy to prevent insurance lapse.

You should change your will if it lists your spouse as the individual who will inherit your property. After your divorce settlement, you may not be the legal owner of some of the assets listed in your will. If you don’t have one, plan to make it with attention to the property and assets you will have when your divorce is finalized.

16. Determine What Will Happen With Your Pets.

Almost every state treats pets as property in a divorce. Pet ownership is divided as an asset based on the value of the animal. California is one of few states that recognize pets as a part of your family.

The California rule AB 2274 treats pets more like children.

If one person owned the pet before the marriage, it would always belong to them.

However, if you adopted the pet together, the law recognizes that pet custody should go to the person best equipped to handle the animal. The court considers how much time, space, money, and caregiving each person can provide.

You can decide on pet custody independently before your divorce begins. If you can’t, use mediation or legal negotiation to resolve this issue, a judge can hear both sides of your case and award sole or joint pet ownership.

17. Make Sure You’re Taking Care of Yourself.

Many people feel their physical and mental health declines during a divorce. Divorce might wear you out and take up a lot of your time. If you aren’t careful about protecting your mindset during the process, you won’t have the time or energy to take care of yourself.

Start taking care of yourself now, before the proceedings begin.

Schedule time for a little bit of enjoyable movement every day, even if it’s just taking your dog for a long walk.

Avoid alcohol or other substances that people often turn to when feeling upset. Keep healthy food and snacks around the house and consider seeing a therapist or counselor to help with intense emotional reactions.

If you commit to these healthy decisions before your divorce begins, you’ll already be in a good place when your divorce starts. You won’t have to change your life to help you rebound or stay healthy.

Instead, you simply have to maintain aspects of your life that work to support your well-being.

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Summary

Getting a divorce in California requires thorough preparation and following strict rules. Otherwise, you risk missing critical issues that will affect your life unpredictably. Thus, following a comprehensive and profound divorce checklist like the one above is essential.

A few basic steps every couple should take before filing for divorce in California are creating a plan for how you want your divorce to proceed and how you’ll handle the logistics of child care and shared custody, if applicable.

Other key steps include understanding state laws on property division, child custody, and alimony. Also, remember to prioritize self-care and your children’s mental health during the divorce process.

To avoid some of the stress of a divorce, follow these steps ahead of time. In addition, try to stay amicable with your spouse to work towards a smooth, uncomplicated divorce process.

However, if you and your partner can’t work together, you can still file for divorce and, with a focus on self-care and emotional support, reach a place of independence and peace of mind.

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