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How to Get a Divorce in California Without a Lawyer

Dmytro Liubchenko

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 14, 2023

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Divorce Without Lawyer California

If you’re trying to get divorced in California, you’ve probably realized how costly the process can be. However, depending on your circumstances, you may pursue a DIY divorce without a lawyer.

If you can get your spouse on board, you both can save a lot of time and money processing your divorce yourself.

Let’s dive right in and find out how to file for divorce without a lawyer in California.

Divorce Without Lawyer California

Do You Need a Lawyer to File for Divorce in California?

You only need a lawyer to file for divorce in California if your divorce requires a court battle. If you choose a peaceful method of divorce that you can handle privately, you don’t have to get a lawyer involved.

Benefits of Getting a Divorce in California Without a Lawyer

Divorce is a legal process, and it seems natural to want a lawyer to help you handle legal matters. However, a lawyer isn’t always necessary, and many people prefer to skip hiring one to enjoy several benefits.

Here are the most significant ones.

Saving Time

When you hire a lawyer for your divorce, you prolong the process. For instance, you and your spouse must adapt to your lawyers’ schedules, which can take weeks to coordinate. In addition, you’ll have meetings and, in some cases, court dates to attend.

Some litigated divorces take up to two years to complete.

If you do things according to your terms, you can complete your divorce more quickly. It all depends on how well you communicate with your spouse and your level of conflict and disagreement.

Saving Money

Lawyers can charge up to $500 for an hour of their time. As a result, many people will spend over $15,000 on their divorce, and legal fees make up most of that bill. You can dramatically reduce the cost of your divorce by forgoing a lawyer.

Keeping the Peace

The purpose of an attorney is to argue on your behalf. When you both hire lawyers, you’re beginning the process of a formal argument. It can cause stress and tension that may affect your whole family.

Many people would prefer their divorce to be a time of healing and moving on rather than an escalation of a conflict they’re trying to resolve.

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Requirements for Divorce in California Without a Lawyer

Getting a divorce without a lawyer requires at least a basic understanding of the state laws and local court rules because complying with them determines the successful outcome.

So, the first thing that self-represented litigants must check is whether they meet the conditions to get a divorce in California.

The specific requirements to obtain a divorce without a lawyer in California are as follows.

Your Divorce Should Be Uncontested

If you consider filing for divorce in California without a lawyer, you should file for an uncontested divorce. It’s when both spouses agree on all aspects of your separation, like the division of property, child custody, child support, and spousal support.

An uncontested divorce requires complete honesty and compliance from both parties. You both need to participate in the process in good faith.

You must trust each other to make important disclosures, like providing your tax returns, information on all existing retirement accounts, and other financial documents.

If you don’t agree on at least one major thing or if one of you won’t comply, you need to file for a contested divorce.

A contested divorce involves a divorce trial with fact-finding and a judge’s ruling. It’s an official part of divorce proceedings, so you’ll need a lawyer to argue your case.

You Must Meet the Residency Requirements

All couples filing for divorce in certain state and county courts must comply with the residency requirements. Generally, a person must live in a given state for a specific period. The residency requirements vary from two weeks to several months, depending on the jurisdiction.

In California, couples must live six months within the state borders and three months in a particular county where they want to file for divorce.

Suppose neither spouse has lived sufficiently long in the chosen jurisdiction. In that case, they can wait until the end of the residency period or file in another state where they meet the residency requirements.

Your Divorce Grounds Should Be No-Fault

When spouses file for divorce, they must indicate the reason in their petition. For instance, some states allow you to choose no-fault or fault-based grounds for divorce, such as adultery.

However, it is important to remember that if you choose fault-based grounds you must prove fault-based reasons to the court during the hearing, which can be complicated without a lawyer.

Therefore, if you want to proceed without an attorney, use the easier path and file on no-fault grounds.

In California, they are called irreconcilable differences. They mean the same as the terms “irretrievable breakdown” and “incompatibility” that are used in other states.

You Should Settle Child-Related Issues

It can be extremely challenging to navigate and resolve child custody disputes, which are among the most complex family law matters. So, if you plan to divorce without a lawyer, you must address all child-related issues on your own.

For instance, you can use mediation or negotiate custody arrangements privately with your spouse.

By amicably resolving child custody and support matters, you can avoid the need to dispute these issues later in court and hire a lawyer to protect your rights.

However, you must make all decisions in the best interest of your children, or the judge will reject your request and have a separate hearing on child custody and support.

You and Your Spouse Must Disclose the Property

With no lawyer to help you gather financial information, both spouses must disclose (share) all their assets, debts, accounts, etc. With this information, it will be easier to determine which items belong to separate and which to community property, also called marital property.

While each spouse’s personal property is not subject to division, community assets and debts are usually divided according to state laws.

If spouses are not entirely honest about their income and assets, it may lead to legal disputes over the divorce and eventually require involving lawyers.

You Must Wait Six Months

California courts impose a six-month waiting period on couples who want to get a divorce. The court may order spouses to attend mediation or counseling sessions while they wait.

It also allows spouses to resolve any issues and reach a settlement agreement without attending a court hearing.

The six-month waiting period starts when the non-filing spouse (respondent) receives copies of divorce papers. A divorce can only be finalized once this period ends.

Even if the court issues a final judgment earlier, it won’t be valid before a specific date based on this six-month waiting period.

Preparation is key when facing a divorce. Equip yourself with the necessary knowledge using our California Divorce Checklist: 17 Steps to Prepare for Divorce

Steps to File for Divorce in California Without a Lawyer

Filing for divorce in California requires submitting a packet of divorce forms to the court and going through several legal procedures.

You must complete the following steps to get a California divorce without a lawyer:

  • Meet California residency requirements
  • Prepare and file divorce papers
  • Serve divorce papers
  • Wait for the respondent’s formal answer
  • Disclose financial information
  • Reach an agreement
  • Finalize your divorce

Let’s look at each of the steps more closely.

Meet California Residency Requirements

As mentioned earlier, a couple can file for divorce in California if they meet the residency requirements. However, the laws are slightly different for same-sex and opposite-sex partners.

In particular, opposite-sex married couples are eligible to get a divorce in California if one person has lived here for six months before starting a divorce. In addition, they must reside for three months in a county where the family court will handle the case.

As for same-sex couples, if they were married in one of California’s counties, they can file for divorce in the same county even if they don’t live in California or meet the residency requirement.

The only condition is that the jurisdiction where they reside doesn’t allow same-sex divorces.

Prepare and File Divorce Papers

The next step is to collect and file the court-required divorce forms.

The person who files the paperwork is referred to as the petitioner, and the other spouse is the respondent.

Upon filing, the petitioner will be responsible for covering the filing fee of $435. If they cannot afford the payment, they can file a waiver form (FW-001), which, if approved, will allow them to pay it later or waive it entirely.

The required divorce forms you will need to file with the court in California are listed below.

  • Petition — Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-100)

A petition for dissolution of marriage will provide the court with the basic information about the parties to the divorce and the requested orders, such as what you want to get after the divorce.

This form notifies your spouse that you’ve filed for divorce and informs them they have 30 days to file a response. In addition, Summons includes several automatic restraining orders concerning property changes, insurance, and children.

  • Declaration under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (FL-105)

If you have minor children, fill out this form and file it with the Petition and the Summons. It will tell the court your children’s personal details, like their place of birth and whether there are other pending cases involving them.

  • Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment (FL-311)

This optional form will provide the other spouse and the court with more details on what orders you request regarding child custody and support. It should be used as an attachment to the original petition or response submitted by the non-filing spouse.

The process of filing the ready divorce forms in California is relatively straightforward.

You can bring all required papers in person to the court clerk’s office or file them online via the e-filing system.

Currently, 26 superior courts in California accept e-filing for divorce and legal separation.

If this option is available in your county, you must register and upload your paperwork or use your provider’s electronic forms (extra fees may apply).

When setting up your account, you will add a payment option to cover all the fees, including a $435 court filing fee. If you’re applying for a waiver, choose “Waiver” in the dropdown menu.

Then, follow the instructions provided by the system.

How to Complete Divorce Forms in California

Completing divorce forms, meaning answering the questions and filling out the required information, can be complicated, mainly if you’ve never dealt with the legal system.

You have several options to complete the court forms without a lawyer.

  • You can get the blank forms from the self-help centers and try to fill them out yourself. Although it looks like the least complicated way, it’s also risky since there’s a lot of room for errors, which can slow down the filing process.
  • Another option is to use an online divorce service, like Divorce.com, to draft and fill out your paperwork according to your needs and circumstances. It’s a faster and more reliable way to get inexpensive customized legal papers that comply with local court standards.

Serve Divorce Papers

After you initiate a divorce, you must serve your spouse with copies of all papers you filed and the original Summons. You must also include a blank Response form (FL-120).

You can serve the respondent using several methods that the Rules of Civil Procedure allow. It is important to note that your spouse cannot receive the divorce papers directly from you.

Instead, you may use personal service by another adult not involved in the case, a sheriff, or a private process server. In addition, you can choose service by mail or publication in a newspaper.

Personal service is usually a preferred way to notify the respondent about divorce proceedings. However, additional fees may apply if you use a private process server’s help. If you have asked for a fee waiver and it was approved, a sheriff will deliver your papers free of charge.

After the server gives your spouse the papers, they must complete the Proof of Service form (FL-115).

Another option is service by publication. You can use it if you cannot locate your spouse anywhere or if they are missing. It means that you pay a fee to a newspaper to publish the Summons once a week for four weeks straight.

The service of process is not needed when both parties file a joint petition for summary dissolution (FL-800). In this case, they can skip this step, draft an agreement, and get a divorce decree.

Wait for The Respondent’s Formal Answer

The respondent has 30 days to file the response papers, as stated in the Summons.

After that, if your spouse doesn’t respond, you can proceed to a default divorce without their involvement. It means that the judge will review the paperwork with the terms you requested and, if everything is in order, issue a default judgment.

If you send divorce papers by mail, and your spouse agrees to all terms, they must mail the signed Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt, Form FL-117, to the sender (not you).

After that, your server must complete the Proof of Service and return it to you with the Notice. Make two copies of these forms and file them together with the originals with the court.

Disclose Financial Information

One of the mandatory requirements in all divorce cases is sharing the most recent financial information with your spouse. The court won’t let your divorce proceed further without you completing this step.

You have 60 days from filing your petition to make the preliminary disclosures. It involves filling out specific forms and giving them to your spouse.

These forms include:

  • Declaration of Disclosure (FL-140)
  • Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141)
  • Schedule of Assets and Debts (FL-142) or, if you have a default divorce, use Property Declaration (FL-160)
  • Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150)

In addition to the list of all property and debts in the form FL-142, you must add the latest bank statements, tax returns from the past two years, copies of title documents for any vehicles, real estate, summaries of retirement plans, credit card statements, pay stubs, etc.

You and your spouse must exchange complete financial information and file the proof (FL-141) with the court. Other disclosure forms are only for you and your spouse, so you mustn’t file them.

Reach an Agreement

Before your divorce can be finalized, you should decide how to split marital property and manage child custody and whether either of you need alimony. These decisions will end up in your written settlement agreement.

You can prepare this document by getting a sample from the self-help centers or your local library. Another option is to use online divorce services or ask a lawyer to draft the agreement for an additional fee.

The main provisions in the agreement must concern property division, child custody, child support, and alimony. After negotiating the terms, both spouses must sign the contract.

If you have minor children, you can attach the following forms:

  • Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Order Attachment (FL-341)
  • Child Support Information and Order Attachment (FL-342)

These forms will address the monthly visitation schedule and child support amount paid from one parent to another.

If you don’t specify these things in a parenting plan, you won’t have anything to fall back on if your spouse decides to spend more time with the children or relocate them.

You must file your signed settlement agreement and the parenting plan attachments with the court, as well as the final divorce forms described in the next step.

Finalize Your Divorce

To complete a divorce process in California, you must file the packet of final documentation. If you and your spouse signed a settlement agreement and have a parenting plan, submit them.

The papers differ for each type of divorce, e.g., uncontested and default, and can be found in the form FL-182.

The universal forms include the following:

File these final forms together with additional ones, depending on your case, with the court.

You should also bring two stamped envelopes so the court clerk can send you and the other party a signed Judgment form and a Notice of Entry of Judgment.

The Judgment will contain the date your marriage is to be officially terminated. So, even if you received the papers earlier, you will be formally divorced on the date specified in the Judgment.

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How to Settle Disagreements Without a Lawyer

The easiest way to settle disagreements without a lawyer is to calmly discuss your differences and come to a conclusion with which you both feel comfortable. You can do this on your own if you and your spouse communicate well.

If you’re stuck, you can work with a divorce mediator. Unlike a lawyer interaction, they’re a neutral third party with a thorough understanding of family law. They know every option, compromise, and alternative couples can choose when working on their divorce settlement.

Your mediator will listen to you both and help you explore your options. However, they won’t make decisions for you or choose a side. All of the power remains in your hands. The mediator is only there to help, and they understand that conversations about ending a marriage can be sensitive. In other words, they know how to assist you through the process.

The number of mediation sessions you need will depend on your level of disagreement. For example, if you only have one or two concerns, you’ll likely need less than three mediation sessions to reach an agreement.

Of course, this amount can vary from couple to couple. The amount of time you spend in mediation depends on how much you are willing to communicate and compromise.

Your mediator will keep track of your decisions and provide you with a detailed list at the end. You can use this information to create a written agreement for an uncontested divorce.

Cost of Divorce in California Without a Lawyer

As expected, the cost of divorce without a lawyer in California is usually lower than with legal assistance. However, the DIY divorce process still includes specific costs, regardless of who represents your case.

The minimal cost of a lawyer-free divorce in California is $435. It’s a filing fee that a petitioner pays when submitting initial divorce papers. However, there is a way to waive this payment if the spouses’ financial circumstances don’t allow them to cover it.

In addition to the court filing costs, the couples may need to consult such professionals as divorce mediators, child support appraisers, real estate agents, accountants, etc.

For instance, one hour of mediation in California may cost around $100 to $350.

If you have children, you might involve a mental health expert to help them cope with anxiety and emotional upheaval. Therapy prices range from $100 to $200 per hour.

Also, one of the factors adding to the overall cost is the method you choose for divorce paperwork preparation.

If you decide to use online divorce services, like Divorce.com, you’ll pay a small fee for obtaining your customized divorce papers. Online divorce in California is rather inexpensive compared to other methods and save you hours of tedious paperwork, so this option is worth considering.

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How Long Does a Divorce in California Without a Lawyer Take?

The time needed to complete a divorce in California without a lawyer varies depending on several factors. Let’s look at each of those in detail.

The first factor you must consider is the number of unresolved conflicts between you and your spouse. If you want to proceed without a lawyer but can’t move past several issues in your divorce settlement, you may use divorce mediation, which can take two hours to a couple of days.

The negotiation process may take longer if the spouses have many disagreements on important issues, such as child custody, alimony, or property division.

The next factor is the length of court procedures of serving the respondent with the divorce paperwork and waiting for their response. It usually takes up to 30 days.

California courts also require full financial disclosure between the parties before issuing orders. It means you and your spouse must share information about property, assets, etc., with each other. The court gives you 60 days to complete this step.

Consequently, the faster your spouse answers the divorce petition and you exchange financial information, the sooner you can proceed to the final stages of divorce.

However, no matter how fast you work together, California has a mandatory waiting period of six months from serving initial papers on the respondent. So, the minimum time a divorce in California takes is six months from start to finish.

Summary

There are several reasons to file a divorce without a lawyer in California.

Couples’ primary goals when they divorce without the help of a family law attorney are saving time and money while maintaining peace between each other.

Filing a divorce without a lawyer starts with preparing your uncontested divorce paperwork, submitting it to the court, and delivering (serving) divorce papers to the other spouse.

Sometimes, you’ll also have to make one brief appearance in court before the divorce is finalized.

The process won’t be overly complicated if both parties can work together and resolve issues without the court’s involvement. This way, they can often simplify the divorce and reduce stress and tension.

Moreover, if you and your spouse are on good terms, discussing this potential route can benefit all parties.

FAQ

Can I Get a Divorce in California Without a Lawyer If I Have Kids?

Yes, you can get a divorce with kids without the lawyer’s assistance if you are willing to cooperate with your spouse and resolve child custody and support issues together.

For example, California courts may order a mediation where both spouses should try to negotiate custody arrangements, visitation, and support.

In addition, the couple must navigate the legal system well and figure out what additional paperwork to file with the court, which might be difficult without the lawyer’s counsel.

However, if the spouses agree on child-related issues, there are plenty of resources to help them with the paperwork.

How Do I Start a Divorce Without a Lawyer in California?

You must meet the state residency requirements to start a divorce in California. Then, complete and bring the following forms to the court clerk’s office: Petition (form FL-100) and Summons (FL-110). You must also pay a filing fee of $435 to start a divorce case.

After that, you will serve your spouse with copies of the initial paperwork and file some additional forms, for instance, financial disclosures and child-related documents.

Can I Get a Divorce Without Going to Court in California?

Yes, you can avoid the court hearing if your divorce is uncontested and you file all the necessary forms for court approval. One of those forms is your written settlement agreement. Once the court gets all the papers from you, the judge will review them and issue a final judgment.

However, the judge might schedule a court hearing if something needs to be added or clarified.

Otherwise, you will receive your signed divorce decree by mail.

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