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California Divorce Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Dmytro Liubchenko

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Feb 09, 2024

About Omar Gastelum | Divorce.com

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Omar Gastelum

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Divorce is a legal process allowing spouses to dissolve their marriage and start their lives with a clean slate.

Divorce in California can be challenging unless you are well-versed in the state divorce laws. This article will help you understand dissolution laws and learn how to begin and pursue a divorce, depending on your situation.

Let’s get started by taking a look at grounds for divorce in California.

Divorce in California

Grounds for Divorce in California

Under California Family Code § 2310, spouses can obtain a divorce (officially called dissolution of marriage in California) using one of the following two grounds:

  • Irreconcilable differences resulted in an irreparable breakdown of the marriage.

These differences may range from unresolved disagreements between spouses to infidelity since California doesn’t provide fault-based grounds for divorce. If a person states irreconcilable differences in their divorce petition, they don’t need to prove anything in court.

Eventually, the judge will grant a divorce regardless of the other spouse’s consent or objections.

  • Incurable insanity.

There has to be substantiated evidence about a person’s insanity, such as trustworthy medical testimony. It should indicate that the insane spouse was ill when the petitioner filed for divorce and remains incurable.

This option is not very popular since the court may order a petitioner (mentally healthy spouse) to support the mentally incapacitated spouse after divorce (Ca. Fam. Code § 2313).

Other states with fault-based divorces have a range of grounds, such as cruelty, infidelity, or abandonment. However, Californians can choose a more straightforward default option that doesn’t require evidential proof.

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The Different Kinds of Divorce in California

Uncontested vs. Contested Divorce

Contested and uncontested divorces in California are two major marriage dissolutions, depending on the spouses’ willingness to cooperate and agree on divorce terms. Each type has a different procedure with the necessary steps to obtain it.

Let’s explore the differences between these two divorce processes.

Uncontested Divorce

An uncontested divorce is a term used to describe a divorce that does not involve any disputes between spouses. It’s the least stressful way to end a marriage, preferable when you have minor children.

In an uncontested divorce, both spouses reach an agreement on all aspects of their settlement and are not competing against each other to obtain specific outcomes. Moreover, couples that choose an uncontested divorce often go through the divorce process without a lawyer.

This approach decreases divorce expenses and gives more control over the outcome.

The main conditions you must fulfill to get an uncontested divorce in California are:

  • Agree with your spouse on all terms
  • Use no-fault divorce grounds
  • Prepare and file a settlement agreement

Ready to dive deep into the uncontested divorce process? Click here and find all specifics of a successful filing for an uncontested divorce in California.

Contested Divorce

A contested divorce is a situation where the spouses cannot agree on critical issues. They include disagreements about the division of assets, real estate, vehicles, alimony, child-related issues, etc.

In such cases, each spouse hires an attorney to represent their requests before a judge during the trial.

The attorneys work to prepare paperwork, gather and present evidence and arguments, and protect their client’s interests in court. The judge will then issue a final judgment on the contested issues.

Contested divorces are more time-consuming and expensive than uncontested divorces. However, despite these drawbacks, some couples have no choice but to contest all terms in court.

The cases when litigation is necessary are below:

  • Marriages with a history of domestic violence
  • One spouse’s unwillingness to negotiate an agreement
  • A party’s refusal to comply with financial disclosure

Don’t miss out on the must-know insights about a contested divorce. Click here to read about the process and requirements of getting a contested divorce in California.

Fault and No-Fault Divorce

Fault and no-fault divorces differ in the grounds (or reasons) the spouses use to file for divorce. No-fault reasons usually include irreconcilable differences and one partner’s insanity, whereas fault grounds are adultery, abuse, abandonment, and others.

California is a no-fault divorce state, meaning neither spouse is responsible for the marriage breakdown. Instead, the spouses simply decide they cannot save their marriage and don’t blame each other regarding legal proceedings.

No-fault divorces are usually less complicated and costly than litigation, in addition to a few other benefits.

California law doesn’t provide fault-based grounds for divorce, even if spouses want to indicate the other party’s guilt. However, sometimes the courts may consider misconduct during child custody decisions, property division, and alimony.

Want to know more about fault and no-fault divorce? The following article about no-fault divorce in California shares essential aspects of it.

Collaborative Divorce

A collaborative divorce is an alternative dispute resolution method that uses collaborative law to settle family law conflicts. It can allow you and your spouse to resolve divorce issues privately without appearing in a courtroom.

For example, working together will enable you to negotiate property division terms, spousal support, and child-related matters without court involvement.

This approach combines an amicable resolution to the divorce and avoids the expense and stress of traditional litigation. In most cases, it doesn’t require court hearings and trials but includes the joint meetings of spouses and their respective attorneys.

Additionally, each party may invite other professionals, such as accountants, family therapists, or child custody and support specialists, to participate in the collaborative process. It continues until spouses reach a mutual agreement.

If they can’t agree, they must hire new lawyers and proceed to litigation in court.

Explore this topic beyond the basics. Follow this link and uncover the step-by-step process of collaborative divorce in California.

Simplified Divorce (Summary Dissolution)

A simplified divorce, or summary dissolution, is a marriage dissolution process used for couples with little property and no children. It requires fewer divorce papers and can be obtained faster than a regular divorce.

However, California has a set of mandatory requirements, including a settlement agreement signed by both spouses. This means the couple must agree on all issues.

Other requirements include the simplified divorce is for a short-term marriage (under five years), for a couple with no children, falls under a cap of $47,000 on joint and separate properties, and less than $6,000 of debt.

On the other hand, a simplified divorce has a few cons that may be critical in the future.

For example, summary dissolutions give up the right to spousal support (alimony). They also forego the ability to appeal the divorce outcome. If these things are not an issue, the spouses can safely go with a summary dissolution without hesitation.

The main benefits of a summary dissolution in California are:

  • Reduced divorce expenses
  • No court hearings
  • Less paperwork
  • More privacy
  • Minimized stress and fewer conflicts
  • Control over the outcome

Want to dive deeper into the simplified divorce process? Check out this related article, “Summary Dissolution in California”.

Default Divorce

A default divorce in California describes when one spouse files for divorce and the other doesn’t file a response within the established time frame. Usually, it’s 30 days from receiving the divorce papers.

The petitioner can then request a default judgment, which means a judge will grant the divorce decree with the property division and child custody orders without hearing the respondent’s side or objections.

There are several occasions where the non-filing party doesn’t file a response, including:

  • When there’s an agreement between the parties (a default divorce with agreement)
  • When the respondent’s location is unknown or they are missing
  • When the respondent doesn’t want to get involved in the divorce process

A default divorce is usually less time-consuming and doesn’t require court hearings if the paperwork is in order. In addition, it’s less expensive since you can obtain it without a lawyer in most cases.

You can reverse it within six months. The court will dismiss it if the default was entered by mistake, there was a lack of proper service, among other reasons.

California courts established a specific procedure to set aside a default judgment. It requires filing several forms and an additional court hearing.

Looking for more information on default divorce? Learn everything you need, including the detailed steps and benefits of a default divorce, in our article “Default Divorce in California”.

Bifurcated Divorce

A bifurcated divorce is another type of marriage dissolution where you can become single sooner, before settling all other divorce-related issues. It is a perfect solution if you don’t have time or desire to wait until the court decides on child custody, property division, and alimony.

This way, you can divorce your spouse and get married again.

A bifurcated divorce has several advantages, such as a quick legal and tax status change. At the same time, some downsides may include an accidental loss of social security or retirement benefits and increased divorce expenses.

In addition, California laws set strict requirements for getting a bifurcated divorce. In particular, the spouses must exchange financial information (a preliminary disclosure), compensate for tax consequences, and maintain health insurance for the other party.

A bifurcated divorce is an excellent alternative for couples stuck in lengthy and contentious divorce processes.

Want to learn more about the process of bifurcation? Click here to discover all the steps and requirements to get a bifurcated divorce in California.

California Divorce Process

Although each divorce case is unique, the legal proceedings in California consist of several mandatory steps that spouses must take to ensure a successful outcome.

Here are the basics.

Meet Residency Requirements

Under California Family Law, at least one spouse must have lived in California for six months before filing for a divorce. In addition, the same person must have lived for three months in the county where they plan to file for divorce.

File the Petition

Requesting a divorce starts with filing a set of California divorce forms with the court. The papers include a divorce petition, summons, and child-related documents if you have minor children. In addition, each petitioner must pay a filing fee of around $435.

Serve the Respondent

Once a petitioner files for divorce, they must inform their spouse about it. The correct way to do it is to ask or hire a neutral third party to give copies of all filed papers to the other spouse. Then, they must file a proof of service with the court.

Wait for a Response

A respondent has 30 days to file response papers with counterclaims. Otherwise, the petitioner can request a default judgment and proceed without the other spouse’s input.

Reach a Settlement

California courts encourage divorcing couples to resolve their disputes before the final hearing. For instance, they can decide on child custody and property division issues during mediation and reach a settlement agreement.

Obtain Divorce Decree

After filing all required papers, the spouses can proceed to the final stage - obtaining a divorce decree. Some couples don’t have to go to court if the filed documents are in order. After a judge reviews the requests and issues a final judgment, the court clerk will mail the decree to the parties.

Still craving more information? Click through to learn more about the 6 steps in the California divorce process.

Property Division

California is among several states that follow the community property law, which divides marital property equally between the divorcing spouses.

It includes such assets as:

  • Cash and money in bank accounts
  • Marital home and other real estate
  • Cars, household items, pets
  • Retirement benefits and pensions, etc.

However, not all property is subject to division. California laws also distinguish separate property that belongs to one spouse only. It is usually any assets and debts acquired before marriage, plus inheritances and gifts (California Family Code, § 770).

Equal division does not mean that every item should be split in half. A common practice is to give the parties property similar in value. For instance, one spouse receives the house, while the other gets all retirement benefits.

If the division is still unequal, one party can make an equalization payment, e.g., give some money to balance the division.

Different property types are divided using different approaches. Therefore, it is a complicated matter that requires thorough research.

You can find more details on how to divide a house, retirement benefits, IRAs, investments, and many other assets in the article “How is Property Divided in a California Divorce?”.

Spousal Support (Alimony)

Spousal support, or alimony, is financial assistance from a spouse with a higher income after a divorce or legal separation. The need for alimony, duration, and amount is determined on a case-by-case basis.

California courts can order two types of spousal support: temporary and permanent. Temporary support is paid during the divorce proceedings and is calculated based on a specific formula.

Permanent alimony is paid after the divorce is final. For short-term marriages, its duration is usually half of the marriage length. But if spouses have been married for more than ten years, the judge will look into several factors set in California family laws to calculate its amount and duration.

Permanent spousal support doesn’t necessarily last for a lifetime. Therefore, you can ask the court to reduce or increase it when your financial circumstances change if it is modifiable.

Also, spousal support may be terminated if the ex-spouse dies or the recipient remarries/cohabits with a new partner.

California has a specific procedure to modify spousal support.

The main steps are:

  • Completing the paperwork and filing it with the court
  • Serving the other party with copies
  • Attending a court hearing

Want to know more? We have the most detailed spousal support guide for California here “Spousal Support in California”.

Filing for Divorce With Children in California

Filing for divorce with children in California adds more complexity to any case, even an amicable divorce. The parents of minor children must take several legal steps and follow specific court rules.

Any divorce case involving underage children aims to ensure their well-being through beneficial custody and visitation arrangements.

Filing for divorce with minor children in California includes several essential aspects.

Here’s what you must consider:

  • Filing the petition and proper documents with the court: When preparing a petition for dissolution, outline child custody, visitation, and support arrangements that you would like to have in the final order. You must file a Declaration Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (form FL-105).
  • Consider getting temporary orders: If you and your spouse cannot agree on child custody and support arrangements to be used before your divorce is final, you can ask the court to issue temporary or restraining orders. They will govern these matters until a judge signs a final judgment.
  • Mediation: All couples with disagreements about child custody and support must undergo mediation. You can hire a private mediator or use one from the court-approved list. Resolving disputes through mediation can save time and result in a more amicable and less stressful divorce.
  • Getting a final judgment: If you and your spouse agree on all issues, including children, you can submit a proposed final judgment form for court approval. Otherwise, the judge will resolve the disputes during the court trial.

Child Custody

California courts generally encourage parents of minor children to reach an agreement through negotiation before the final hearing. If they succeed, they can draft a joint parenting plan and add it to the final judgment form.

If the parents cannot compromise, the court will decide these issues based on the child’s best interests and all relevant factors. They include the child’s age, health, relationship with each parent, any history of domestic violence, etc.

California courts distinguish two types of child custody: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to the parent’s rights to make important decisions about their children, such as health care, education, religion, etc.

Physical custody defines where the child will live after the divorce. Typically, joint legal custody and equal parenting time are preferable for most cases.

Child Support

Child support is another aspect you must consider in a divorce involving minor children.

In California, both parents are responsible for supporting their children after divorce. Typically, a parent without residential custody pays support money to the other parent to help cover the costs and bills associated with raising the children.

The court usually determines the amount of child support based on child support guidelines. They take each parent’s income and the number of children into account and provide formulas to calculate the support amount.

The court may deviate from the amount calculated using the guidelines. The judge may also consider such factors as the child’s unique needs, health care, and educational expenses.

Child support in California is mandatory for all divorce cases.

It can only be terminated upon several circumstances (California Family Code, § 3901):

  • The child turns 18 and doesn’t attend high school
  • If, at 18, they are still enrolled in full-time education, support ends when they turn 19
  • The child gets married, becomes self-supporting, or emancipates in other ways
  • The child dies

The court will modify a child support order if you present evidence of significant changes in your financial situation or the children’s needs.

Divorce Without a Lawyer in California

Hiring a lawyer to get a divorce in California is not mandatory. On the contrary, spouses with simple or uncontested cases can handle the process independently. This approach will save them money and minimize conflicts.

Although anyone can represent themselves for their divorce in court without a lawyer, only some of these cases end well. A few critical conditions that help you get a beneficial outcome when divorcing without using a lawyer include the following:

  • Your divorce should be uncontested
  • You should use irreconcilable differences as divorce grounds
  • You must comply with residency requirements
  • You must agree on all issues with your spouse

The most complicated parts of a lawyer-free divorce are settling the divorce terms and preparing the court-required paperwork. So, if you have a few minor disagreements, you can negotiate them privately or with a divorce mediator’s help.

You can find most of the divorce forms at the California Courts self-help center. However, another more convenient way to handle the paperwork is to use online divorce services. These online services prepare customized and fully completed papers for you that are ready to be submitted to the court.

Interested in more information about the steps to get a lawyer-free divorce? Here’s where you will find all the answers: How to File for Divorce in California Without a Lawyer.

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Divorce Mediation

Mediation is an alternative to divorce litigation that helps settle all disagreements outside the courtroom. This process usually includes a neutral third party - a licensed mediator - who helps facilitate negotiation between the couple.

The mediator can’t give legal advice, take sides, or influence spouses’ decisions during the mediation sessions. However, a skilled professional can guide the couple through the process and help them explore possible solutions to the problem.

Divorce mediation is usually mandatory for child custody and support disputes. However, spouses may also choose to resolve their conflicts about property or alimony via mediation.

If the negotiation is successful, the mediator will help spouses formalize the terms by drafting a written settlement agreement. After the judge reviews and approves this agreement, its terms will be legally binding.

Otherwise, the couple might start over, use another mediation, or decide to litigate their divorce.

But what are the process and requirements to get into mediation in California? You can find all the details in this article on Divorce Mediation in California.

Hiring a Paralegal

A divorce paralegal is a professional who has the required education and training to perform delegated legal work related to divorce cases. Usually, their work remains under the supervision of a licensed attorney or law office.

Paralegals may assist with case management and draft legal documents. However, they cannot represent their clients in court.

When considering hiring a paralegal for your divorce in California, take the time to research and interview candidates with a positive reputation and experience completing similar cases. In addition, ensure they have proper education, certificates of completion of ABA-approved programs, or at least three years working in law under the licensed attorney’s supervision.

Although paralegals typically charge less than attorneys, they are limited to assisting only in uncomplicated divorce cases. So, if you have many complex issues in your divorce, a paralegal may be unable to help you.

Do-It-Yourself Divorce

A DIY divorce is where you choose not to seek help from a lawyer and instead file the necessary paperwork and go through a divorce without legal representation. You will also resolve any complications arising during the process without external assistance.

The main parts of a do-it-yourself divorce are:

  • Finding and completing the correct divorce forms
  • Filing the papers with the court
  • Complying with court rules and procedures
  • Attending a final hearing if necessary

A DIY divorce has many advantages, such as a low price and independence from lawyers’ schedules. However, it is only a suitable option if you know you won’t have significant issues or problems during the divorce process.

It can quickly become contentious and complicated, requiring legal assistance.

So, how to know if a do-it-yourself divorce in California is the right choice? And what about the necessary steps you must take to get it? We have the answers in this article: Do-It-Yourself Divorce in California.

Online Divorce

Filing for divorce using an online service, such as Divorce.com, is one of the cost-effective and efficient methods. The essential part of online divorce in California is drafting the court-required paperwork for your divorce.

Don’t worry - you won’t receive blank forms and then fill them out alone. With Divorce.com, all your legal papers will be ready to file with the court and contain all the information in the right places.

The main advantages of using an online divorce service are the following:

  • Preparation of divorce paperwork using online divorce services is often less expensive than hiring a lawyer.
  • Getting paperwork online is convenient and can be completed without leaving home.
  • It’s less time-consuming: the entire process can be completed in under a week, depending on how quickly you provide the necessary information about your divorce.
  • There’s no need for lawyers and scheduling extra time to meet them.
  • You enjoy more privacy since you keep the details of your divorce between you and your spouse.
  • Online divorce services typically provide detailed instructions on filing the papers, reducing stress from knowing what to do and which steps to take.

Legal Separation vs. Divorce in California

Legal separation and divorce in California are two legal processes allowing couples to end their relationships and lead separate lives. However, these processes have several key differences.

Legal separation allows a married couple to live apart and divide their property while remaining legally married. It means that the spouses are not officially divorced and, thus, cannot remarry.

A divorce, however, severs any ties between the spouses. Divorce is only used when one or both parties are sure they don’t want to be married to each other.

Unlike divorce, legal separation can be reversed. For this reason, many couples choose it as a way to understand whether they want a divorce or can reconcile. Other motives for choosing legal separation over divorce are maintaining insurance, inheritance rights, tax benefits, religious beliefs, etc.

Want to dive deeper and decide which option suits you better? Follow this link to read more about legal separation vs. divorce in California.

Annulment vs. Divorce in California

A full-scale divorce is not the only option to end a marriage in California. Instead, there is a less complicated and lengthy process called annulment. Annulments make the marriage as if it never happened.

But you must meet the strict requirements concerning grounds (or reasons) for canceling your marriage.

California family laws provide the following grounds for annulment:

  • Incest (marriage with close relatives)
  • Bigamy
  • Marriage using fraud or force
  • Physical or mental incapacity

A few positive sides of getting annulment are that you don’t have to meet residency requirements or wait through a mandatory period of six months to get a divorce. However, there may be a statutory limitation on when you can request an annulment.

Typically, you can’t ask for an annulment after four years of marriage. The exceptions are marriages between close blood relatives or bigamy, which do not have a time limitation and will be annulled immediately after discovering these faults.

Still curious if your marriage can be eligible for an annulment? Read this article to find out more: Annulment of Marriage in California.

How Long Does a Divorce Take in California?

The shortest time to get a divorce in California is six months. The mandatory six month waiting period starts from the date of filing the divorce petition. In practice, the divorce process in California may take a year or longer, depending on the circumstances.

The most significant factors that affect how quickly a couple can get divorced in California are the following:

  • Child custody disputes

A divorce is less time-consuming when the parents agree on child custody and visitation. Otherwise, the couple risks spending more time in court and mediation sessions than they would like.

  • Property division process

California laws divide all marital property 50/50 between the divorcing spouses. However, the process includes dividing bank accounts, real estate, retirement accounts, and other assets. So, the more property you have, the longer your divorce will take.

  • A divorce method you use

You have plenty of options to get a divorce in California - uncontested, collaborative, mediated divorce, and several other types. The duration of your divorce will depend on which method you choose. In general, the fewer conflicts you have, the easier and faster path you will have to resolution.

Want to learn more? Click through to find more details in our article “How Long Does a Divorce Take in California?”.

Cost of Divorce in California

The cost of divorce in California varies depending on many factors. They include the type of divorce you use and whether you hire a lawyer. Uncontested and DIY options are the least expensive, starting from $435 (a filing fee).

You can also use mediation or collaborative divorce. Unfortunately, these types can be pricey sometimes, especially if you can’t reach an agreement during the negotiation sessions. Failed mediation and collaborative divorce efforts can still end up in a court trial.

However, contested cases with many conflicts require a lawyer’s involvement, which never comes cheaply. In particular, divorce lawyers in California charge from around $250 to $950 per hour.

Thus, the more hours they work on your divorce, the higher your divorce expenses will be. So, a California divorce costs $15,000-$17,000 on average if you use a lawyer’s assistance.

Want to learn more about the cost of divorce in California and what it depends on? Read our article “How Much Does a Divorce Cost in California?”.

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Steps to Prepare for Divorce in California

Getting a divorce can be emotionally overwhelming and present many challenges if you don’t prepare beforehand. In addition, you may find case management too complicated, particularly if you haven’t consulted a lawyer yet.

In California, navigating a divorce requires time and completing several vital steps to avoid mistakes and rushing when the proceedings begin.

Here are some tips you can use to prepare for your divorce in California:

  • Educate yourself on divorce laws, including property division and child custody.
  • Look into every divorce method (mediation, uncontested divorce, DIY divorce) and weigh the pros and cons of choosing each.
  • Collect financial and legal documents, such as bank statements, tax returns, mortgage documents, life insurance policies, etc.
  • Consider where and how you will live during and after the divorce (living arrangements, finances, children, etc.).
  • Work out a child custody (parenting) plan to benefit you and your children.
  • List all your separate and marital property with an approximate value for each item.
  • Determine how to sever your bank accounts and insurance before you file for divorce.
  • Decide if you need to request any temporary or restraining orders.

And that’s not all. You can find a complete list of preparatory steps before a California divorce in this article: California Divorce Checklist.

FAQ

Who Pays for Divorce in California?

Each spouse is responsible for paying legal fees, such as when hiring a lawyer or filing the papers with the court. Still, if one party has more assets and income than the other, the judge may order the higher-earning spouse to cover some of the other spouse’s legal fees.

Additionally, the parties usually share court costs, such as filing fees or mediation.

When is Divorce Final in California?

Getting a final judgment dissolving a marriage requires at least six months from the day the petitioner served divorce papers on the other party. It is due to a mandatory waiting period in California.

In particular, the law requires a six-month cooling-off period to give the parties time to reconcile or prepare the necessary documents, such as financial disclosing papers or a settlement agreement.Does It Matter Who Files for Divorce First in California?

In California, it does not matter who files for divorce first. Since California only uses no-fault grounds for divorce, neither party will be blamed or punished for the wrongdoing. Therefore, both spouses have equal initial rights and capabilities to get a fair divorce outcome.

However, if you fear that your spouse may hide assets or take children from your care, filing first may help you get a restraining order sooner and prevent this from happening.

What Does a California Divorce Decree Look Like?

A divorce decree in California is the final order issued by the court in a divorce case and consists of several parts.

Usually, it has such items as the terms of property division, spousal support (alimony), child custody, and child support. It also has provisions on attorney’s fees, court costs, and case information (case number, each party’s name, and the date of divorce).

How to Dismiss a Divorce Case in California?

If you have changed your mind about getting a divorce in California after officially starting it, you may be able to dismiss your divorce case.

First, it requires filing a Request for Dismissal (form CIV-110) and a Notice of Entry of Dismissal (CIV-120) with the court. Then, notify your spouse by serving them copies of these papers and filing the proof of service with the court.

Can I Change My Divorce After It’s Been Finalized?

You can change certain aspects of your divorce decree after it has been finalized. For instance, the judge may modify the child custody order or spousal support amount and duration.

However, it’s almost impossible to alter property division decisions. You can change a divorce decree in two ways - by appealing and submitting modification requests. Both methods require justification in support of your position.

In addition, some types of divorce, such as simplified dissolutions, are exempt from appealing and alteration.

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