(Very) Basic Overview of Divorce Process in California
So what is a divorce?
What it is: A legal process whereby the marital relationship is formally and legally terminated. California tends to treat marriage as an agreement or contract that either party (or both) has an absolute right to end whenever that party desires to. In order to formally and legally end the marital relationship, at least one party must take action — usually, filing for divorce (or “dissolution of marriage” as it is called in California) at the Superior Court that has jurisdiction over the parties (this is usually the Superior Court closest to where the parties live).
What it is not: A process where good or evil are determined or where one party “wins” and the other “loses” – no family court will ever make a ruling finding that HE was a bad husband or SHE was a cheating wife. Many people believe (or wish) that the divorce process can be used to obtain some form of punishment against the “bad” spouse, or that the party who is determined to be the “good” spouse will end up with more money or property. Whether or rightly or wrongly, this is absolutely not the case. California is a “no fault divorce” sate. What this means is that (unlike a few other states such as New York) a family law court will not consider or even allow a party to spend time on matters such as adultery, neglect of the other spouse, immorality, failure to adhere to religious doctrines or anything in a similar vein. Family courts confine their analysis and rulings solely to factual issues regarding the duration of the marriage, community versus separate property, child custody and support. Absent extraordinary circumstances, a family court will absolutely NOT allow any party to present evidence or testimony that the other party is or was a bad/evil/cheating/lying spouse or person. That is very dissatisfying to some people who very much believe they have been wronged by the other (in a moral sense) and feel the other spouse should be punished or that they should be rewarded in some way for being the good spouse. Be forewarned: If you file for divorce with the goal of having a Judge “rule” that the other party is a bad person who was a bad spouse, you will be disappointed. All California Family Courts are empowered to do is end your marriage – not make moral judgments or pronouncements. This fact is important to digest before you file in order to be free from unrealistic expectations and reduce frustrations with the process.
Basic Process & Terminology:
On e party files a petition for dissolution of marriage with the court. This party is called the “Petitioner.” The other party is served with the petition and then has a period of time to file a response. That party is called the “Respondent.” There is no difference in terms of rights or benefits to being either the Petitioner or the Respondent. each party has the same rights in the process and the party who files first does not really have any advantage.
After the petition and response are filed, there is a period of time for “Discovery.” This is a process where each party can “discover” all facts and documents that are relevant to the issues (property, support, custody) and may seek them from the other party as well as third parties (such as banks, employers, etc). After that is completed, the parties will either settle their case (via a written agreement) or litigate the case in front of a Family Court judge who will decide the issues and issue a final judgment. The reality is that most cases settle at some point in the process. Why? Because they should! Once the parties have a clear view of what the issues and facts are, it usually makes sense to come to an agreement on those issues.
Once the parties come to a full agreement, or after the Court has made findings as to all issues, the parties will get a final judgment of divorce and as of that date they are no longer legally married. It is possible to get a “termination of marriage” date earlier than this, but in the usual case the party agreement or end of litigation in front of the Court is when it occurs.