Once A Party Files For Divorce In CA, What Is The Timeline And/Or Steps That Happen Next, Up To The Decree Being Finalized?
Step #1: File and Serve the Initial Pleadings
Step #1 starts with one spouse filing his/her initial pleadings with the court and having those pleadings served on the other spouse. Those pleadings are called the “Petition for Dissolution” and “Summons”. In California, the legal term for divorce is “dissolution”. Once the Petition and Summons are filed and served, the case has officially started. The spouse to file the first pleadings is called the “Petitioner”; the spouse who is served with the first pleadings is called the “Respondent”.
Summons – The Summons is a document informing the Respondent that the Petitioner has opened a case with the court and that the Respondent is now subject to a number of important automatic temporary restraining orders known as “ATROS”. The ATROS prohibit both spouses from unilaterally:
- taking the minor children of the marriage out of CA
- applying for a new or replacement passport for the minor children
- cashing out, borrowing against, canceling, transferring, disposing of, or changing the beneficiaries of any insurance policies (such as on life insurance policies, health, automobile, and disability policies) which are held for the benefit of the spouses and the minor kids of the marriage
- transferring, borrowing against, concealing or in any way disposing of any property, unless the act is done in the usual course of business or is needed for a necessity of life (such as food or rent)
The ATROS also place limitations on what each spouse can do with their estate planning with respect to disposing of property at death without the other spouse’s consent or a court order.
Petition for Dissolution – The Petition for Dissolution informs the court about some basic information, including:
- Who the spouses are and whether they meet the residency requirements to qualify for a divorce under CA law
- When they were married and when the spouses separated
- The grounds for a divorce (the most common is that the parties have “irreconcilable differences” which means they just can’t get along anymore)
- Spousal support preference (e.g., request that support be paid to one spouse or the other; request that the court end its ability to award support to one or both spouses; or reserve the support issue for determination at a later time)
- Identification of separate property and community property (assets and debts)
- Attorney’s fees and costs preference (request that each spouse be responsible for his/her own attorney’s fees and costs, or request that one spouse be required to pay the other spouse’s legal fees and costs)
- If there are minor children of the marriage, the petition will include names and birthdates of kids and proposed custody terms
The spouse who is served with divorce papers is called the Respondent. The Respondent has 30 days to file a response if he/she wants to participate in how the divorce goes. The response covers the exact same information as the Petition for Dissolution.
Step #2: Exchange Financial Information
Each side is to prepare and exchange with the other a “Schedule of Assets and Debts” and an “Income and Expense Declaration” (together these are called “financial disclosures”). The purpose of exchanging this information is to put all of the financial information on the table. If both spouses have a thorough understanding of the financial picture, then they can start to make informed decisions about how to divide up the assets and debts and how they will handle other issues like child support and spousal support. Preparing the financial disclosures can be a lot of work, but it is important to be accurate and thorough. Failure to be forthcoming in the financial disclosures may result in penalties issued by the court.
Schedule of Assets and Debts – The purpose of this document is to itemize all of the assets and debts that the spouses have together and also separate from each other. This document:
- Provides information about things like real estate, accounts, personal effects, vehicles, life insurance, investments, business interests, and debts
- Includes a spouse’s opinions about whether an item is community property, separate property or both, when the item was acquired, what the item is currently worth, and any debt associated with the item
Each spouse also needs to provide documentation of the items, such as copies of account statements, pink slips, appraisals, etc.
Income and Expense Declaration – The purpose of this document is to provide information about the spouse’s:
- Workplace and occupation
- Income (amounts, sources, and changes in income over the prior 12 months)
- Tax filing status
- What he/she believes the other spouse’s income is
- Identification of other persons who live in the household and the extent to which any of those persons share expenses with the spouse
- Itemization of what the spouse’s actual or estimated expenses and debts are, or what the spouse anticipates they will be in the future
- If minor kids are part of the divorce, there is additional information to fill out about how much time the kids spend with each parent, whether health insurance is available for the kids through either spouse’s work, and any additional expenses or special hardships the court should know about
Step #3: Finalize the Terms of the Divorce
This means all of the issues in the case are figured out and approved by the court, either as a result of the spouses coming to an agreement or as a result of a court order following a trial. Typical issues include: division of assets and debts, spousal support, child support, child custody and visitation. Most people finalize the terms of their divorce in a document called a “marital settlement agreement” which spells out the property, support, custody and visitation details.
How Long Does The Divorce Process Generally Take In CA? What If The Divorce Is Contested Or Is High Conflict?
The very soonest a divorce can be completed under CA law is 6 months and 1 day. Divorces in which the spouses cooperate with each other relatively well usually can be resolved within 12 months. Cases in which the spouses do not cooperate generally take longer than 12 months and cost a lot more in legal fees. It is common for divorces to take between 12 and 24 months to complete.
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