Lawyers and legal professionals are invaluable to people who need their help, but do you really need their help to get a divorce?
You might be surprised to learn that you sometimes do not need a lawyer. In fact, many divorces can be completed successfully without legal assistance.
If you’re beginning your own divorce in California, here are all the details you need to know about the do-it-yourself (DIY) divorce option and whether you can use it to end your marriage.
What Is a Do-It-Yourself Divorce?
A DIY divorce is one in which you don’t receive outside assistance from a legal professional. Instead, you’ll complete and file the paperwork yourself or with your spouse. Then, if disagreements arise, you’ll handle them on your own.
You can complete a DIY divorce at your own pace and won’t need to pay costly legal fees.
Can You Get a Do-It-Yourself Divorce in California?
Yes, you can.
People use lawyers usually because they need help solving complicated legal issues relating to their divorce. However, you are not required to have a lawyer to file for a divorce.
California allows people to file for divorce themselves. If you don’t have any complicated legal issues surrounding your divorce, there’s often no reason to hire a lawyer.
Is a DIY Divorce Right for Me?
A DIY divorce works well for uncomplicated divorces. If you’re not in an argumentative place with your spouse, a DIY divorce could be the right choice.
Do-it-yourself divorce is best when filing for an uncontested divorce, where both spouses have made all significant decisions before submitting divorce papers to the court.
Below, you’ll find some essential considerations when deciding whether DIY divorce is right for you:
You and Your Spouse Can Communicate
Communicating with your spouse during a divorce may not always be comfortable, but it’s essential. You and your spouse will need to learn to communicate effectively when you don’t have the buffer of lawyers.
Moreover, if you have children and plan to co-parent, learning to master direct and effective communication is a critical skill. So why not start practicing during your divorce?
Effective communication requires two people. If your spouse refuses to communicate amicably, your options are limited. You can file for a divorce without their help, but they can challenge the terms of a custody order at any time. If they do, you will need to hire a lawyer.
You and Your Spouse Will Be Honest
Your divorce settlement requires complete disclosure from both of you regarding your properties. If you and your spouse share a lot of assets, you probably know each other’s financial information. Therefore, it would be difficult for your spouse to hide assets.
If you believe that your spouse might hide assets or refuse to disclose them, you can’t make them tell the truth. You’ll need to file for contested divorce and use a lawyer if you believe this to be the case with your spouse.
Only the court has the power to formally require someone to produce their financial information and impose consequences if they refuse to comply with the order.
You and Your Spouse Agree on Most Items
You and your spouse must completely agree about everything to file for an uncontested divorce. If either of you objects to anything in the divorce settlement, you cannot finalize your divorce until you settle the matter.
Most people use lawyers to argue their position when disagreeing with their spouse during a divorce. However, if your level of conflict isn’t significant, you don’t need a lawyer. Instead, you can talk the issue out until you come to an agreement with which you both feel comfortable.
If you need more help, you can use a divorce mediator. Divorce mediators are family law experts who act as impartial third parties during your divorce settlement. If you need help figuring things out, your divorce mediator will listen to both sides and present your options.
It’s up to you to make the final decision on important issues like child support, child custody, alimony, and dividing your property. The mediator is only there to help.
If mediation doesn’t work out, you must hire a lawyer. However, if it does work out for you, you can use the notes from your mediation session to file for a DIY uncontested divorce.
You and Your Spouse Don’t Have Complicated Assets
The average couple will own a home, one or two cars, and a couple of retirement accounts.
It’s usually easy to divide your assets equitably if they are scarce. On the other hand, dividing significant property or a family business could be more complicated.
Even if you mostly agree on how you’d like to divide the assets, you might need help from a lawyer to get things in order. If you can figure things out with a lawyer outside of court, you can still file for an uncontested divorce without further legal representation.
If you disagree on dividing your assets, you might need to file for a contested divorce.
Do-It-Yourself Divorce Requirements in California
Preparing for divorce without legal help requires many hours of preparation and understanding of California laws. For starters, spouses representing themselves must learn and comply with the requirements for pursuing a do-it-yourself divorce.
So, to obtain a DIY divorce in California, you typically need to fulfill all of the following requirements.
Meet California Residency Requirements
Spouses cannot file for divorce in California if at least one meets the state residency requirements. In particular, under the California Family Code, couples can start a divorce in local courts if one of the partners has lived in California for six months before filing.
Another important part is that at least one spouse has been living for three months in the same county where they want to start a divorce.
Pursue an Uncontested Divorce
Getting an uncontested divorce means that spouses don’t blame each other for marriage dissolution. Couples should use no-fault grounds instead of alleging adultery or cruel treatment.
In California, they are called “irreconcilable differences.”
The main reason to choose an uncontested divorce is to have fewer conflicts and uncomplicated paperwork. The more disagreements you have, the higher the probability of ending up in a court trial, where you almost always need a lawyer’s assistance.
Agree on Important Issues
The issues you and your spouse must agree on are property division, child custody, child support, and alimony. You should decide all these matters before asking a judge to grant your divorce.
Usually, you can negotiate and sign a settlement agreement containing all the essential provisions before or after filing for divorce. The primary condition is submitting the settlement form to the court before the final judgment.
Prepare Court Paperwork
You will need to prepare and file the divorce forms with the court. Since it’s a DIY divorce, you will collect and fill out the paperwork without the lawyer’s help.
You can find all the necessary forms online at self-help centers or get them via online divorce services. Either way will be cheaper than hiring an attorney. However, using online tools to get a divorce online in California is generally more reliable and less time-consuming.
Follow All Legal Procedures
It’s insufficient to complete the papers and file them with the court. You must also follow all the court-required procedures, such as serving the other spouse or disclosing property.
Getting a divorce in California without a lawyer means going through the divorce proceedings yourself. The required steps include drafting additional paperwork, requesting fee waivers, and presenting evidence to the court.
Failure to complete mandatory procedures may result in the dismissal of your divorce case.
Be Ready to Wait for the Final Judgment
Even after you have filed all the paperwork and completed every necessary step, your marriage may not be officially over.
California courts have set a waiting period of six months before finalizing your divorce. Since it’s mandatory for all dissolution cases, you must also comply with this requirement.
DIY Divorce Process in California
The core of the do-it-yourself divorce method is to file all required paperwork and go through mandatory legal procedures without a lawyer.
If you live in California and are considering a DIY divorce, educating yourself about the necessary steps of the divorce process is crucial.
Here are the necessary steps:
- Check Your Compliance With the Residency Requirements
- Collect the Court Papers
- File the Paperwork With the Court
- Serve Your Spouse
- Wait for the Response
- Complete Preliminary Financial Disclosure
- Draft a Settlement Agreement and a Parenting Plan
- Obtain the Final Judgment
Check Your Compliance With the Residency Requirements
Initiating divorce proceedings in California is only possible if the couples fulfill specific residency criteria. In particular, either spouse must have lived in California for at least six months.
Another essential condition is that this spouse must have resided in the same county for three months before filing.
If both spouses meet California residency requirements and live in different counties, a petitioner can file divorce papers in either of the two counties where one of the spouses resides.
Besides this general rule, California Family Code provides a few other ways to comply with the residency requirements to start a divorce.
In particular, same-sex couples married in California can file for divorce here if they currently live in the jurisdiction prohibiting same-sex marriages and divorces.
Collect the Court Papers
If you or your spouse plan to file for divorce in California by yourself, you must gather all court-required paperwork first.
The initial paperwork must include a Petition — Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-100) and a Summons (FL-110). These forms provide important information about the parties and what they request in divorce.
If you have minor children with your spouse, you must also complete a form FL-105: Declaration under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). This document informs the court about your children’s birthplace and current residence and their involvement in other court cases.
One of the optional forms for spouses with children under 18 is FL-311: Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment. It will give the court more details about how you want to arrange child custody matters and visitation.
If a petitioner needs to make additional requests, such as temporary alimony or child support, they should use the form FL-300 - Request for Order.
They can also request a restraining order by completing specific documents. For instance, you must use form DV-100: Request for Domestic Violence Restraining Order and other forms if you are concerned about potential domestic violence.
How to Complete Divorce Forms in California
Completing divorce forms is more complex than it may seem at first.
For this reason, you need to pay attention to all information and instructions provided in the court forms before filling them in.
You will have several options to complete your divorce forms depending on your method of obtaining the necessary documentation. If you download the documents from one of the California online self-help centers, you must fill in the blanks yourself.
The main risk of this approach is a high likelihood of making mistakes or forgetting to add the required information.
Another option is to use online divorce services to get fully completed paperwork ready to be filed with the court. One such reliable option is Divorce.com. A significant advantage of this service is getting a packet of papers customized and filled out according to your situation.
Getting papers online eliminates the need to collect and complete the blank paperwork yourself. Plus, this inexpensive option saves many hours of researching local court rules.
File the Paperwork With the Court
Once you have collected and completed all the required forms, you must file them with the court. There are several ways to do it.
The first option is to bring the Petition and other papers to the court and give them to the clerk. You must also pay a $435 filing fee at this time. If you can’t afford the payment, attach a fee waiver form to your paperwork.
Don’t forget to make two copies of the papers, because the clerk will keep the originals and give you the stamped copies back. You will need them to serve your spouse.
Another option is electronic filing. Currently, it’s available in 26 counties. If you live in a county allowing e-filing, you can submit all your papers online. However, it will come with extra fees.
To start the e-filing process, you must register on the platform and choose a provider from the list. After that, the following steps will include selecting a payment option. Some of them can be waived, e.g., the court filing fee, if you file a waiver.
Afterward, you can upload your papers from your computer or create the documents online following the instructions.
Serve Your Spouse
After filing the initial papers with the court, you must inform your spouse about the divorce proceedings. This process includes delivering (or serving) a set of documents to the other party, legally referred to as a respondent.
California rules of civil procedure allow several methods of serving papers:
- by a person not involved in the case, a private process server, or a sheriff
- by mail
- by publication
A petitioner cannot be the one who gives the papers to the respondent. Instead, they must choose a third party to do it. This rule also applies to service by mail.
The list of documents that the petitioner must send to the respondent in California is as follows:
- Copies of the Petition (FL-100) and Summons (FL-110)
- A copy and a blank Declaration Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (Form FL-105)
- A blank Response form (FL-120)
- Copies of any other documents you filed
If you choose to serve your spouse by personal delivery, your server (e.g., a sheriff) must complete the Proof of Service form (FL-115) and give it to you. Then, you must file this form with the court, or the service won’t be valid.
One exception where the petitioner doesn’t need to serve the respondent in California is when the spouses file a joint divorce petition (FL-800).
Wait for the Response
A respondent has 30 days to file response papers with the court. Otherwise, the petitioner can proceed with a default divorce, where the other spouse won’t be involved.
The respondent may not file a response due to several circumstances. For instance, when they are missing, or their location is unknown, the petitioner will use a service by publication in a local newspaper for four weeks.
Also, sometimes the respondent does not file the response papers intentionally because the parties have a written agreement. In this event, they can get a default judgment with the incorporated agreement.
This method saves the parties extra paperwork and filing fees.
Complete Preliminary Financial Disclosure
A mandatory step in a divorce proceeding in California is exchanging financial information between spouses. This process is called a “preliminary” financial disclosure.
To complete this requirement, each party must prepare the following forms:
- FL-140: Declaration of Disclosure
- FL-150: Income and Expense Declaration
- FL-141: Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure
- FL-142: Schedule of Assets and Debts, or
- FL-160: Property Declaration for default divorces
The next step is to serve these papers to the respondent in one of the same ways allowed for the service of the initial paperwork. You must also attach all financial documents reflecting all your property, assets, and debts.
Some examples are tax returns for the past few years, bank statements, retirement accounts, pension plans, title documents for real estate and vehicles, etc.
You do not need to file these forms with the court first.
Instead, you must only file the form FL-141 after you served your spouse with the financial information.
You have 60 days to do it. The time starts from the day you filed a divorce petition.
Draft a Settlement Agreement and a Parenting Plan
The next step is to make all critical decisions between the spouses. Property division, child custody, and child and spousal support are the main issues that must be settled. If both parties agree on these terms, their divorce will be less time-consuming and expensive.
Spouses can prepare a settlement using blank forms and samples from self-help centers or a completed customized form via online divorce services.
A settlement agreement has several sections with personal information of each party and their decisions on the following issues:
- Property division: the list of marital and personal property (also called “separate”) and who gets what
- Child custody: the living arrangements of minor children and a schedule for when each parent will spend time with the children
- Spousal support (alimony): the parties will decide if either needs maintenance, its amount, and its duration
- Health insurance: whether one party will help the other cover medical or dental insurance
- Equalization payment: whether one party will pay money to compensate for the unequal property division
- Provisions on attorney or court fees
- Conditions of modification
- Signatures and dates
A marital agreement must also be accompanied by all or some of the following forms, depending on the circumstances:
- Spousal, Partner, or Family Support Order Attachment (FL-343)
- Spousal or Domestic Partner Support Factors Under Family Code Section 4320-Attachment (FL-349)
- Property Order Attachment to Judgment (FL-345)
All couples that have minor children must also complete a parenting plan. It must contain decisions on physical and legal custody and a parenting schedule. These provisions are essential for the later understanding of each parent’s rights and responsibilities.
Spouses with children under 18 should add the following documents to their settlement agreement:
- Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Order Attachment (FL-341)
- Child Support Information and Order Attachment (FL-342)
The judge will examine the parenting plan and ensure that it is in the children’s best interests by considering statutory factors provided by the Family Code.
Obtain the Final Judgment
To finalize your divorce in California, you must file the settlement agreement (if your divorce is uncontested) and other final papers with the court. They might include:
- Judgment (FL-180)
- Notice of Entry of Judgment (FL-190)
- Declaration for Default or Uncontested Dissolution or Legal Separation (FL-170)
- Written settlement agreement
A complete list of final papers depends on the type of divorce, e.g., default, uncontested with or without children, etc. You can find a list of required forms in the FL-182 (Judgment Checklist).
After you have filed all the legal forms and completed all the mandatory steps, the judge will review your case and issue a judgment.
Usually, couples with uncontested divorces don’t need to appear at the court hearing. However, if a judge finds inconsistencies in the papers or requested divorce forms, the spouses might have to stand before the judge and answer their questions.
Lastly, the parties will receive signed copies of the Judgment (FL-180) and the Notice of Entry of Judgment (FL-190) in the mail.
Do you feel overwhelmed about the divorce process? Find structure and peace of mind with our California Divorce Checklist: 17 Steps to Prepare for Divorce
How Much is a Do-It-Yourself Divorce Cost?
A do-it-yourself divorce costs around $1,170 and consists of several parts.
The principal initial payment to start a DIY divorce in California is $435. It is the court filing fee that a petitioner (filing spouse) must pay when submitting their initial papers to the court clerk. You can split the costs if you and your spouse file a joint petition.
However, the spouses unable to cover this filing fee can request a fee waiver. They can do it by filing form FW-001 (Request to Waive Court Fees).
Apart from that, they also need to provide financial information proving their difficult financial situation. If the judge grants the request, spouses can proceed with their divorce without paying filing fees.
Since you don’t hire a lawyer, you must also prepare the court-required paperwork. If you choose an online divorce service, you will have to cover a small service fee. However, the cost will be much lower than paying a lawyer for the same task.
The next factor affecting the cost of a DIY divorce is the conflicts between the spouses and the method they choose to resolve their differences. For example, they will pay for the mediation services if they hire a mediator to settle property, alimony, and child-related disputes.
An average professional mediator in California charges $250 to $500 per hour. Usually, you will need at least a few sessions, depending on the number of conflicts you want to settle.
Other expenses include hiring such experts as real estate appraisers, child custody evaluators, and accountants. In addition, you will have to pay for the service of papers, transcript costs during the hearing, making copies of documents, etc.
How Long Does Do-It-Yourself Divorce Take?
A do-it-yourself divorce in California will take at least six months to finish.
It is the shortest period that spouses can dissolve their marriage since it’s a mandatory waiting period. However, it may last longer, depending on several factors.
The first factor influencing the length of time to complete a DIY divorce in California is the spouses’ willingness to compromise.
For instance, the ideal situation is when they can quickly resolve all issues and draft a settlement agreement. However, some couples may need mediation, which can slow down the divorce process.
The next important thing to consider is the court backlog of cases and the availability of time slots for hearing your case. Some courts are so busy that spouses must wait for several months to get their divorce case reviewed.
Filing the paperwork and going through the mandatory procedural steps also influence the length of a DIY divorce in California. For instance, if you prepare the papers yourself without any previous experience with the legal system, you might run into complications and errors.
In addition, the more issues you have to resolve in your case, the more documents and information you’ll need to gather, which can take time. For instance, if you have minor children or substantial property, you must collect and file more paperwork than other couples.
Tips For a Successful DIY Divorce in California
Divorce can be a complicated and highly-emotional process. You could still face many surprises even if you started an uncontested DIY divorce.
Luckily, there are a few tips to follow if you want to navigate your way to a marriage dissolution successfully:
- Get acquainted with California divorce laws. Understanding family laws is the first step to success in a DIY divorce. So, spend some time looking through the legalities of the process, including grounds for divorce, property division, child-related issues, etc.
- Be open to negotiation. You and your spouse must work out an agreement on all critical issues. Generally, working out an agreement beforehand will allow you to avoid going to court. However, this approach requires communication and willingness to compromise. Thus, you must prepare yourself to find alternative solutions that will work for both parties, even if you would wish for a better outcome.
- Be honest and truthful. Spend enough time to collect accurate information to fill out each court form. Hiding income, debts, or any other financial details can result in the dismissal of your DIY uncontested case and lead to a court trial instead.
- Get organized. Keep track of all legal and financial documents you need for your divorce, such as income, property, expenses, and debts. Make copies of all documents you file with the court and send them to your spouse. You or the court might need to reference them later.
- Don’t waive support. Even if you feel generous now, think twice before giving up spousal support. These payments can provide financial security if you find yourself in a difficult situation later. You never know what might happen, so don’t hesitate to discuss this option.
- Remember to include retirement accounts. Couples sometimes forget about retirement accounts and pension plans, which can accumulate a substantial amount of money that belongs to community property. Ensure you and your spouse include all pension and retirement accounts in the divorce disclosures.
A DIY divorce in California is the most cost-effective option for couples with no contested issues or those who can resolve them. It’s also an excellent choice if you have little property to share or no minor children.
However, spouses with kids and marital property can also successfully use a do-it-yourself divorce with a bit more effort on their part.
The most crucial elements in achieving a favorable outcome in a DIY divorce are knowing the legal process and California family laws and taking an active role in your divorce case.
If you complete the required steps and consider all options, you can obtain a divorce on your conditions without hiring expensive attorneys.
Can I Get a Do-It-Yourself Divorce in California if I Have Kids?
Yes, you can get a do-it-yourself divorce in California if you have kids. One condition is that you must resolve child custody and support issues before the final hearing.
For example, you can sign a settlement agreement on child-related matters and submit it to the court. Another option is to file extra paperwork in case of a default divorce. Either way, you must inform the court how you want to handle child custody and child support after divorce.
How Do I Start a Do-It-Yourself Divorce in California?
To start a do-it-yourself divorce in California, you must file a Petition (form FL-100) and Summons (FL-110) with the court. In addition, if you have minor children, you must submit several child-related documents.
You can only file your papers with the court in the county where you or the other party meet the residency requirements.