California is a no fault divorce state, meaning that neither party needs to have a basis for a divorce other than that the parties simply no longer get along. In California, a divorce is typically based on nothing more than “irreconcilable differences.”
California was the first state to allow no fault divorce, beginning in 1974 under then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Prior to 1974, one spouse would have to prove that the other spouse acted inappropriately – usually by having an affair – in order to get a divorce. In other words, you had to prove that one spouse was “at fault”. The no fault divorce has been allowed in every state since 2010. New York was the last to approve it.
No-fault divorces can be somewhat straightforward, but there are a few things you’ll need to know.
Understanding No-Fault Divorce
A no fault divorce is when a spouse or domestic partner files for divorce based on their inability to get along. In short, the marriage is broken and cannot be fixed. You do not need a specific reason to seek divorce. In some states, living apart for a specified period can be the reason for a no-fault divorce. It is important to know that the Court generally will not consider the bad acts of the other spouse if these bad acts are being brought to the court simply to make the other spouse look bad. The court will not assign fault or blame to either party. Issues like adultery and abuse do not matter for the divorce itself, though they may regarding other matters such as child custody.
In California, a marriage can end one of two ways: annulment or divorce. Sometimes a legal separation may also be appropriate where both parties no longer want to be legally tied to the other, but want to maintain the title of “spouse” for health insurance reasons. It is not necessary for both spouses or domestic partners to agree to end the marriage, in fact, either party can proceed with a divorce without the cooperation of the other party so long as the other party actually knows that a divorce action has been filed. The other party cannot stop the progression by refusing to participate in the case. If a spouse or domestic partner does not take part in the case, the other party will still be able to receive a default judgment and the divorce will be finalized.
Getting a no-fault divorce isn’t the only way to end your marriage. Very atypically, you can seek an end to a marriage because the marriage itself was not legal at the time of the marriage (called an annulment) for various reasons. An annulment requires you to give a reason for the court to find that your marriage never existed in the first place. If your spouse or domestic partner does not agree with this claim, you must prove it in court. Common reasons for an annulment include one party already being married, unsound mind of either party, familial relationship (i.e. spouses are related to each other), or one party being under age at the time of this marriage.
No-Fault Divorce vs. Uncontested Divorce
There’s a difference between a no-fault divorce and an uncontested divorce. A “no fault” divorce, which is the most common way to end a marriage in any state, just means that the court does not assign blame for the end of the relationship to either party. An uncontested divorce means that the parties are able to reach an agreement about the division of assets and custody without needing to have a court decide how to resolve these issues.
An uncontested divorce is usually formalized when both parties “sign off” on the divorce papers, waive their right to a trial, and agree with everything that is being asked for in the document. This agreement resolves not only the grounds for divorce, but also other things like alimony, child support, custody and property division.
Uncontested divorces move quickly through the courts since nothing is being disputed and no trial is necessary. In a contested divorce, your spouse does not agree with what is being asked and the case will proceed toward a trial unless a settlement is reached.
If Your Spouse Does Not Agree to a No-Fault Divorce
If your spouse or domestic partner does not agree to a divorce, you can still file for a divorce in California. If your spouse fails to reply or show up in court, the court can grant a default judgment of divorce.
Your spouse or domestic partner may choose to contest the divorce. This happens when you and your spouse cannot agree to the terms of the divorce. In this scenario, it’s best to sit down with your partner and try to work things out. If you cannot come to an agreement, you may choose to use a mediator, or each party may choose to hire an attorney.
Divorce mediation in California involves sitting down with a neutral party (i.e. an attorney) who is experienced and trained in mediation and the laws of the state. The mediator will help the divorcing parties reach an agreement about custody of the children, child support, spousal support, property division and rights, and other money issues, and will often write up the necessary documents and file them with the court.
Coming to an agreement will save you a lot of aggravation and grief. Mediation, hiring lawyers and involving the court system typically adds time and cost to your divorce, so it’s always best if the parties can work it out on their own. Sometimes, however, that is just not possible.
Separation and No-Fault Divorce
The State of California does not have a required separation time before a divorce, although some states do. However, there is a waiting period. By law, you must wait six months from the date the other party is served with your Petition before the divorce can be finalized.
Keep in mind that couples may separate prior to a divorce being filed, or they may still live together after the petition is filed, but the timeline does not start to end the marriage until the non-filing spouse is served.
Planning Your No-Fault Divorce
It’s important to note that it does not matter who is first to file for divorce. The California courts do not give any preference to the person who files or disadvantage the party that responds to the case. Either way, you are entitled to a fair hearing and final judgment.
If you decide to end your marriage or domestic partnership, it’s best to plan ahead of time. Put some consideration into how you are going to proceed before you begin. Talk to a lawyer if you have any questions. For a list of how to prepare for your first meeting with an attorney, please check out our section on pre-divorce planning here.
Attorneys can be a valuable resource that can save you time and money. Some attorneys, like us, will set up a consultation just to plan your exit strategy and will review your rights and options so you have a better understanding of what to expect from the process. There are attorneys that handle only divorce cases, and have experience as both mediators and representing individual parties.
If you have children under the age of 18, it’s best to consult an attorney to discuss issues like custody, support and visitation, or to assist in preparing a custody and visitation plan that makes sense for your circumstances.
Given your particular circumstances, you may also want to talk to a financial planner familiar with divorce strategies, an estate planner to revise or terminate any wills or trusts, and find a co-parenting therapist to help resolve any custody-related issues that may come up during this process.
The good news is that – if you are able to resolve your issues between the two of you – your case should move relatively quickly through the California court system and you will never have to appear in court.