Most people don’t know what to expect when they start the divorce process. Divorce is a complicated process that happens at one of the most vulnerable and confusing times in your life. It may be helpful to have a timeline to make you feel a bit more at ease and prepared for what comes next legally. The following timeline is intended as a general overview of what typically happens in the divorce timeline, but your situation may take longer or shorter to resolve.

Generally speaking, there are three “Steps”

Step 1: the filing and service of the initial divorce petition and response.

This “opens the door” to the court, and tells the court and your spouse that you are seeking a divorce.  The petition is served on the other spouse, and that spouse has 30 days after he or she is served to file a Response.  Filing the Response “opens the door” for that spouse to enter the court.

We say “opens the door” because if a spouse fails to file a Response with the court, that spouse could be found to be in default. Essentially, the door to the court will be “closed”, and the case will be resolved without the non-responsive spouse’s cooperation.

Step 2: the exchange of information.

We refer to this as the “show me what we have” stage. This is the stage where both spouses are required to tell the other the assets, debts, interests, stocks, retirements accounts, credit cards – everything – that the parties own.  Both parties are also required to inform the other about their current income and expenses.

Step 3: wrapping it all up.

Once we feel confident that both spouses know what assets and debts are involved, and the incomes of the parties has been determined, we take this information and try to reach an agreement or, if we can’t all agree on how to divide things, we go to court. Either way, you need a Judgment, and a Judgment can only be entered by agreement, or after a trial.

How long should it take?

A California divorce case starts when you serve your partner with a petition asking a court for a dissolution of marriage. California has a six-month waiting period, which means that a divorce cannot be granted until at least 6 months has passed between the date the other party is served with the Petition and the date of the Judgment ending the marriage. Until the Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage is entered, you are still legally married and cannot marry another person. Also, for income tax purposes, you cannot file a “single” tax return.

No one can guarantee how long your California divorce may take as there are many factors that are both within the attorney’s control, and not within our control, such as how cooperative the other party is, or how aggressive or reasonable the other attorney is. Also, complicated custody or financial issues tend to take longer to resolve than more straightforward or agreed upon issues.

Six months is the minimum amount of time it can take from Petition to Judgment because of the 6-month waiting period. It is possible to resolve everything and have a written agreement before the 6-month required waiting period, but a Judgment cannot be entered any earlier. Your circumstances may require a more or less time. For example, if you have complicated support or custody issues, need experts to help you, or go to trial, your case may take 2 years to finally resolve. On the other hand, if you have no children involved and the parties both agree on everything, then six months may be more than enough time.

hourglass california divorce timeline

What is the first step?

The first thing to do in getting a divorce is to file a petition with the court. A petition is a form you must fill out asking the court for a divorce. Either you or your partner file the petition, and then the non-filing partner will have thirty days from the date they are served with the petition to file a response. The date that the other partner is served the petition marks the start of the six-month waiting period. It does not matter in the eyes of the court or counsel who files first.

What will happen next?

If there are any disputes about custody, support, or property, then a Request for Order must be filed. This is a document that allows a hearing to happen sooner rather than later to resolve necessary issues. Eventually, if there is an agreement, both partners need to complete a marital settlement agreement, which is a statement that lays out a plan to divide any community property and settle the question of custody. However, both partners must still go through the six-month waiting period.

Do I have to go to court?

If you and your partner are able to come to an agreement easily, then you may be able to settle out of court. Otherwise, expect to attend several status hearings at the courthouse to let the court know how the process is coming along. The parties will go in front of a judge to explain what steps they have taken or may still need to take. If the two parties cannot agree, then a judge will schedule a trial. At a trial, a judge will make decisions regarding support, custody and visitation, and the division of property.

What information must I provide?

In order to divide community property, both partner’s assets, income, and debt must be disclosed. Both parties are required to do this and it is particularly important if you and your partner cannot agree on a settlement and must schedule a trial. A court uses this information to determine a fair division of the money and property made or received during the marriage. Sometimes, people think that hiding income or assets means they will have to pay their spouse less. However, if a court finds out that you have failed to tell them about some of your finances, the court may order you to pay for the attorney of your partner or may even award the entire hidden account to the other party. However, it is not uncommon that one spouse attempts to hide income or assets from the other in order to keep more for themselves, or to pay less in support.  This can lead to big trouble down the road for the spouse that is hiding anything.

What is the last step?

A divorce becomes effective on the day that a judge signs a judgment for dissolution. That judgment will have a date of termination for the marriage, often after the day the judgment is signed. After the termination date passes, then you will be free to remarry, file your taxes as single, and benefit from the other privileges of being legally single.

Typically, the court will mail you a copy of your judgment once it is entered. The court will stamp that date that you are officially restored to your status as a single person on the face of the Judgment. You generally can’t choose the date that you want to be divorced unless there is a very good reason to do so.

Other Post-Divorce Issues

There are often a few things left to do after the divorce.  If there are bank or retirement accounts that need to be divided, this will often occur after the judgment is entered because the account holder will want to see a copy of the judgment. Titles to cars should be signed off and transferred.  Any joint credit card accounts should be closed.

Child support and child custody may need to be modified over the next years as the children get older. Child custody and child support usually remain changeable until the children turn 18, so even after a judgment is entered, you may still have issues with child custody and child support.  More specific information about child custody and child support can be found on our website.