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Contested Divorce in California

Dmytro Liubchenko

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 14, 2023

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Contested Divorce California

Ending a marriage in California is a complex process consisting of multiple steps.

The more issues exist between divorcing spouses, the more stressful and lengthier their divorce becomes. In this case, the couple will likely file for a contested divorce and have a judge decide who gets what after divorce during a court trial.

But what does a contentious divorce entail, and how should someone prepare for it? This article will explain everything about a contested divorce in California.

Let’s dive in.

Contested Divorce California

What Is a Contested Divorce in California?

A contested divorce in California is one in which divorcing spouses can’t agree on such issues as property division, spousal support (alimony), child custody, and child support payments. In this case, each party hires their own attorney, who represents their client’s interests at trial.

What is the Difference Between Contested Divorce and Uncontested Divorce?

An uncontested divorce occurs when couples have made every decision regarding their settlement before they walk into a courtroom. Spouses work together to reach an agreement they both approve of and file a petition for divorce with the California courts.

A judge reviews the divorce papers and settlement agreement, verifies that both parties agree to everything, and approves your divorce.

Many uncontested divorces are handled privately at home. Couples don’t need to hire lawyers or have a divorce trial. Instead, it’s a private and discreet event that relies on good communication and compromise.

In comparison, couples with contested divorces cannot resolve all their differences privately and save money on attorneys. Instead, they must go through lengthy court trials and pay thousands of dollars for legal representation.

In addition, the contested divorce process will take much longer than an uncontested one, where spouses can dissolve their marriage in six months or so.

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Contested Divorce Process in California

One of the necessary steps for spouses with contested divorces is hiring an attorney who will draft the legal papers, file and serve the paperwork, and represent their clients during court hearings.

The attorney or the spouses alone will follow the divorce process in California, consisting of the stages described below.

1. Choosing the Proper Venue.

Deciding on the county where to file for a divorce should be based on the California residency requirements. Under California Family Law, a person can initiate a divorce in a county where either spouse has lived for three months before the filing.

In addition, they must have been a California resident for six months or more before starting their divorce in this state.

2. Preparing Divorce Forms.

Collecting the correct legal forms and filling them out is a mandatory step to ask the court to end a marriage officially.

The basic California divorce papers for a contested divorce include the following:

  • Divorce Petition, Form FL-100
  • Summons, Form FL-110
  • Declaration under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), Form FL-105

A divorce petition is arguably the main divorce document in the initial filing process. Typically, you must fill it out with information about your divorce and what you ask of the court. You may also need other forms, depending on the local court requirements.

3. Filing the Papers With the Court.

The filing process consists of two steps. First, you must take the initial divorce forms plus two copies to the court clerk, who will stamp them. The originals will stay with the court while you will receive back the stamped copies.

The second step is to pay the filing fee. In California, the fee for starting a divorce is $435. However, if you cannot afford it, you can request a fee waiver by filing a form FW-001.

4. Serving the Other Spouse.

After you have filed your divorce papers, you must officially notify the other spouse about the divorce. To do it, gather copies of the divorce petition, Summons, and Declaration under UCCJEA and deliver them with a blank Response form (FL-120) to your spouse.

The rules of civil procedure allow the following ways to serve your spouse in California:

  • Personal service by a person 18 or older (a third party, private process server, or county sheriff). This person must complete the Proof of Service of Summons (FL-115).
  • Service by mail. In this case, you must add a Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt (FL-117) to the copies of other papers.

Lastly, file the proof of service (forms FL-115 or FL-117) with the court.

5. Waiting 30 Days.

California family law requires a petitioner to wait 30 days for the other spouse’s response. So, first, the respondent should fill out the Response — Marriage/Domestic Partnership form (FL-120) and file it with the same court.

Then, they must serve the petitioner with this document using one of the above mentioned methods.

6. Filing Financial Disclosures.

A petitioner must fill out and file financial disclosure forms with the court clerk and have a third person deliver them to the other spouse within 60 days after filing the divorce petition.

These documents include the following:

  • Declaration of Disclosure, FL-140
  • Schedule of Assets and Debts, FL-142
  • Income and Expense Declaration, FL-150
  • Property Declaration, FL-160 (used instead of form FL-142 for default divorces)

Don’t file these papers with the court. You only need them for the disclosure process with your spouse.

Also, use a third-party server to give these documents to your spouse. Your server must complete the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141) as proof of service. After that, file this form with the court.

7. Settlement Negotiations (Optional).

Before your divorce can be finalized, you and your spouse must decide how to settle the contested issues, such as property division and alimony payments. For instance, you can discuss the terms with the other party during mediation.

Those couples who successfully go through a negotiation process conclude a settlement agreement.

If the spouses cannot agree on their divorce terms, they usually ask a judge assigned to their case to decide all issues for them during a trial.

8. Appearing in Court for the Judgment.

Couples with contested divorces and no settlement agreement must attend a court trial to obtain the final judgment. They or their lawyers will need to set a trial date, summon witnesses, and gather any necessary evidence.

However, you may avoid a trial if you and your spouse only disagree on an uncomplicated issue, like a couple of provisions concerning child support arrangements.

To take a less stressful path, ask a judge to resolve this minor difference during a court hearing. It will save you time and nerves.

How Long Does a Contested Divorce in California Take?

It can take approximately 1 to 2 years to finalize a contested divorce in California, depending on the number of contested issues and their complexity. In comparison, couples with a summary dissolution and irreconcilable differences will spend about six months obtaining a final judgment.

The time for a contested divorce to be finalized will depend on how quickly the spouses can resolve any legal disagreement and settle all issues.

Other factors that extend or decrease the length of the divorce process in California are the following:

  • The number of contested issues that need to be resolved
  • The presence of minor children
  • The amount of money, real estate, and other assets or debts to be divided
  • The willingness of spouses to cooperate

How Much Does a Contested Divorce Cost in California?

Getting a contested divorce in California can be extremely expensive, mainly because it involves lawyers whose fees comprise the lion’s share of the divorce expenses.

In particular, California lawyers charge anywhere from $300 to $950 per hour, depending on their experience level, the prestige of the law firm they work for, and their skill set.

The math for the total divorce expenses is elementary. The more hours a lawyer spends handling a divorce, including phone calls and court hearing appearances, the more money you will have to pay.

Thus, the final cost of a contested divorce in California can vary significantly. The average total costs for divorce lawyers in California range from $12,500 to $15,300.

You are often required to pay a few thousand dollars to reserve a lawyer’s assistance. It’s called a retainer and is usually $3,000-$5,000.

In addition to paying your divorce attorney’s fees, you might have to cover additional costs associated with filing your petition for dissolution with the court and serving copies of the divorce papers on your spouse.

For instance, the filing fee to start a divorce in California is $435. You could also be responsible for paying costs associated with the discovery process, such as obtaining necessary records or investigating your spouse’s finances.

Who Needs a Contested Divorce?

Most couples won’t need a contested divorce. Contested divorces only occur in situations when nothing else can de-escalate the conflict or when one spouse is deliberately making the process difficult.

Here are a few situations when contested divorces are unavoidable.

Couples Who Cannot Agree

If you cannot agree on financial matters or matters pertaining to your children and no amount of negotiation is helping you reach a conclusion, your only choice is to pursue a contested divorce.

Typically, a divorce requires decisions on child custody, property division, alimony, etc. If you can’t make those decisions together with your spouse, the judge will decide for you during the trial.

Divorces Where One Person Won’t Comply

Both people need to provide important financial information, like tax returns and information about retirement or investment accounts. They also need to disclose all of their property, real estate, and assets that they own.

If your spouse hides assets or refuses to disclose the truth, you need the power of the court to compel them to provide accurate documents or face consequences.

Divorces That Involve Domestic Violence

Partners who commit domestic violence may refuse to comply with the divorce process as a way to regain control of their victim. If this happens, file for a restraining order and inform the court of this person’s history of domestic violence.

If there is proof that your spouse is engaging in dangerous or abusive behavior that affects you or your children, protecting you and granting you a safe divorce will become the court’s top priority.

The State of California can offer you resources to protect yourself and your minor children. You may be awarded temporary emergency child custody during the divorce process.

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What You Need to Know About Contested Divorce in California

When you hear people talk about a long, expensive, or dragged-out court battle of a divorce, they’re talking about a contested divorce. Sometimes this battle is necessary. If you’re considering a contested divorce, you should know a few things before you begin.

The Process Can Be Long

Contested divorce proceedings can sometimes take years, depending on their complexity. You also have to abide by the court’s schedule. The court system is often overwhelmed. If your local court is busy, you must take the dates they give you.

If one or both of you can’t make that date, you’ll need to move your dates further into the future.

Contested Divorce is More Expensive Than Other Divorces

You need a divorce lawyer for a contested divorce. Every hour of your lawyer’s time is going to cost you a lot of money. Some people spend over $10,000 on attorney’s fees by the time their divorce is over.

If you don’t have that kind of money to throw around, your soon-to-be former spouse might not either. But, on the other hand, if you’re both in a position where it’s wise to save money, your shared interest in protecting your bank accounts may inspire you to pursue other divorce methods.

Contested Divorce Can Be Stressful or Traumatizing

Many people report feeling stress, anxiety, or depression during their divorce. It’s normal for divorce to be a challenging time.

A contested divorce involves regularly revealing deeply personal information in front of strangers and a lot of financial strain. It can add to the unease that you may be feeling.

It’s important to be mindful of your mental health during divorce, especially if the process is messy. If you need assistance from a mental health professional, it’s worth the time and effort.

Final Thoughts

Contested divorces are often the result of a marriage that has gone completely awry. The spouses are usually so angry at each other that they cannot agree on the terms of their divorce. Since the process is complex, there are many steps they must take to start and finalize it.

Moreover, if they have minor children, it will also take a toll on them.

A contested divorce in California takes a lot of time, energy, and money, so it’s essential to understand what’s at stake before a person decides to end a marriage in a contentious way.

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