Once you are ready to start your divorce or legal separation case for your marriage or domestic partnership, and know which county to file your case in, you are ready to start your court case. Click for a program that will help you make sure you are filing your case in the right county.
Keep in mind that there are many forms to fill out throughout the court process, and it can get very complicated, especially if you want to include support orders, child custody orders, and orders dividing your property. You may be able to get help with your case, or with portions of the case, from a lawyer or your court’s family law facilitator or self-help center. Click for help finding a lawyer.
Fill Out Your Court Forms
To file for divorce or legal separation, you have to fill out the same forms. If you want specific legal advice about how to fill out your court forms, talk to a lawyer. What you write on your court papers can be very important and can affect the outcome of the case. It is very important to be accurate and complete, and a lawyer can help you figure out how to fill out the forms so that they accurately reflect your position. This is especially important if you think you and your spouse or domestic partner are likely to have disagreements about the issues that the court forms ask you about.
If you need more room on your petition to list your property and debts, use the following form:
If you have children under the age of 18 with your spouse or domestic partner, also fill out:
File Your Forms With the Court Clerk
Turn in your forms (the originals AND copies) to the court clerk. If there are no obvious errors, the clerk will take the original of each form and return the copies to you, stamped “Filed.”
You will have to pay a filing fee. Find out how much your fee will be. Keep in mind you are filing your first papers, a petition (often called a “first appearance”). If you cannot afford the fee, you can ask for a fee waiver.
If you want the judge to make temporary orders for child or spousal support, bill payment, protection from domestic violence, or other issues, you must fill out and file other forms. Talk to your family law facilitator or self-help center to ask for help with temporary orders.
Serve Your First Set of Court Forms
The law says your spouse or domestic partner must be told that you have started the legal process for a divorce, legal separation, or annulment. To do this, you must “serve” your spouse or domestic partner with copies of all your court papers. The judge CANNOT make any orders or judgments in your divorce or legal separation case until your spouse or domestic partner has been properly “served.”
To “serve” your papers, you will have to find someone 18 or older (NOT you) to deliver a copy of your papers to your spouse or domestic partner. The “server” (the person delivering your papers to your spouse/domestic partner) can be a:
If you hire a process server or use the sheriff, try to give him or her a photo of your spouse or domestic partner and a list of times and places when it will be easy to find that person. Look for a process server close to where your spouse or domestic partner lives or works. Fees are often based on how far the server has to travel. So this will save you money.
Service is very important, so you must do it correctly. For more information about "service."
What needs to be served?
Your “server” will need to serve your spouse or domestic partner with:
How the papers must be served
The papers can be served in 1 of 2 ways:
IMPORTANT: If you need to serve a divorce, legal separation or annulment Summons and Petition on your ex-spouse or partner and you do not know where he or she is, there is a special process so you can move forward with your case. Click to find out how to serve a spouse by publication or posting when you do not know your spouse's or partner's whereabouts.
Serving the local child support agency
If you or your spouse or domestic partner gets money or other help from the government for a child of this relationship (or if you have a child support case pending with the local child support agency), you must also serve a copy of your filed forms on the child support agency’s office in the county where the benefits are being paid. Find your local child support agency.
The child support agency can be served by mail. Use Proof of Service by Mail (Form FL-335). You cannot use this form to serve your spouse or domestic partner!
File your proof of service
Once you serve your spouse or domestic partner with copies of your papers, you must show the court that you completed this step. To do this, your “server” has to fill out a proof of service form telling the judge when and how he or she served the papers on your spouse/domestic partner.
Your server must:
You must then file your Proof of Service (and Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt, if there is one) with the court clerk. Make a copy of these forms so that, after the clerk files and keeps the original, you will have a copy for yourself.
Important! Contact a lawyer if:
- You do not know where your spouse or domestic partner is;
- Your spouse or domestic partner is in the military, in jail, or does not live in California; or
- You are having a difficult time serving the forms.
IMPORTANT! You cannot legally end your marital status until at least 6 months after the case is filed and the respondent has been served with a copy of the summons and petition. AND the divorce will not become final on its own. One or both sides will have to file more papers before that happens. Make sure you follow all the necessary steps to make sure you finish your divorce.
You have filed your petition in your divorce or legal separation case. Now, you are ready to complete the financial disclosures needed to get divorced or legally separated. Keep in mind that you can provide your financial disclosures at the same time as your petition if you wish, but NO LATER than 60 days after filing your petition.
California law requires that you and your spouse or domestic partner give each other written information about what you own and what you owe, and about your income and expenses. To do this, there is a set of forms you have to fill out and exchange. This is called “disclosure.”
The point of disclosure is to make sure that you and your spouse or domestic partner are aware of everything you each own and owe, separately and together, so you can divide your property and debts equally. It also gives you the financial information you need to make decisions about child and spousal or partner support.
You cannot get divorced if you do not exchange your disclosures. If you leave anything out of your paperwork, either by mistake or on purpose, your property division can be “set aside” or canceled. And your divorce case may be reopened. If the court finds out that you left anything out or lied on your disclosure forms on purpose, the court can order that any property you did not list goes to your former spouse or domestic partner. You can also be ordered to pay his or her attorney’s fees and a fine.
The first disclosure you make is called the “preliminary declaration of disclosure.” Sometimes, you also have to make a second, final disclosure. To give your preliminary or final declaration of disclosure to your spouse or domestic partner, you must have it served in person or by mail. This means that someone, NOT you, 18 or older delivers or mails the Declaration of Disclosure
You do NOT file the preliminary Declaration of Disclosure, or the final one if you need one, with the court. Instead, each of you has to serve a copy of all the completed forms on the other. You keep the original of your disclosure forms.
You DO need to file with the court a form called the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure
Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure
You MUST make your preliminary declaration of disclosure within 60 days of filing your petition. Try to do it as soon as possible after you file your petition. By doing it sooner rather than later, you and your spouse or domestic partner will have the information you need to divide your property and debts and to try to reach an agreement on support.
If you want specific legal advice about how to fill out your disclosure documents, talk to a lawyer. The financial documents are very important, especially in cases where there is a lot of property or debt. And if you and your spouse or domestic partner are likely to have disagreements about these issues, what you write on your financial disclosure documents can affect the outcome of the case. It is very important to be accurate and complete, and a lawyer can help you figure out how to fill out the forms so that they accurately reflect your position. Click for help finding a lawyer.
Keep in mind that if anything changes or you have new information since you and your spouse/domestic partner exchanged your preliminary declarations of disclosure, you have to fill out and serve a new set of disclosure forms updating the other person about the new or changed information. You will also have to let the court know by filing another Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (Form FL-141).
After Completing Step 4 - You are NOT done!!
After completing steps 1–4, your next step depends on whether your spouse or domestic partner responds to your petition and whether you have an agreement on the terms of your divorce.
Go to Completing Your Divorce or Legal Separation to find out what to do next.
If you have filed for divorce or legal separation and changed your mind, you may be able to cancel your case.