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6 Stages of Divorce: What to Expect in Each Step of the Process

Divorces are among the most common family law proceedings in the U.S. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were more than 689,308 divorces nationwide in 2021. Because of how frequent these proceedings are, California courts have distilled them down to a science. 

However, while there is a definite progression for moving through the divorce process, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re unfamiliar with the proceedings, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. 

That’s why we’ve broken down the legal divorce process into six basic stages. Here’s what you should expect during each phase and what you can do to be better prepared for your split. 

1. Getting Legal Representation

Before doing anything else, the first and most important step toward ending your marriage is seeking legal counsel. Even supposedly simple divorces benefit from the guidance of a skilled divorce attorney. Finding an experienced California lawyer will make all the difference in the rest of the process.

Your lawyer will play a crucial role throughout your divorce. They will ensure you understand your rights under California law, explain how prenuptial or postnuptial agreements may impact your split, and assist you with critical legal paperwork. Furthermore, they will represent you during negotiations and any hearings necessary to finalize your split to guarantee you receive a fair settlement.

2. Filing Your Petition and Serving Your Spouse

Once you have retained legal counsel, you can begin the legal process of ending your marriage. To get started, you will file an official petition to dissolve your marriage in a court with jurisdiction over you or your spouse. In this petition, you will explain why you are ending your marriage and what matters should be included in your final divorce decree. You will also provide your preferred outcomes from the case in your petition.

Once this is filed, you will notify your spouse about the proceedings by serving them copies of the paperwork. Your lawyer will help you determine whether personal service or service by mail is the better option. The process cannot proceed until your spouse has been served.

3. Waiting for Your Spouse’s Response 

After your spouse has been served, they have 30 days to respond to the documents. Their response should address the requests you made in the initial petition and may include their own demands. Once you receive this response, you can proceed to the next step.

However, if your spouse is personally served but does not return the paperwork after 30 days, you can proceed without them. You can petition the court for a default divorce. In this case, the court will not consider your spouse’s preferences when deciding matters about your divorce because they chose not to engage with the process. You will typically receive everything you requested in your initial petition within the bounds of the law.

4. Exchanging Information

If your spouse responds after being served, the next step is sharing financial information with each other. Both you and your spouse will produce financial disclosures detailing everything you own, earn, and owe. These disclosures should include both separate property and joint assets from your marriage to ensure you are not accused of hiding assets. 

Comprehensive financial disclosures pave the way for a smoother split. While it may be tempting to leave out assets, that is unlawful and may cause you to be found in contempt of court. Instead, work with your attorney to ensure you produce a thorough and accurate disclosure so the rest of the process goes smoothly. 

Your attorney will also help you review your spouse’s disclosure. If anything looks like it’s missing, you may need to work with a forensic accountant to ensure your spouse is not hiding assets from you. 

5. Negotiating Your Settlement

In most divorces, spouses will spend at least some time negotiating with each other. These negotiations allow you to independently address some of the concerns involved in your divorce. For example, many couples agree on arranging child custody and parenting plans without judicial interference. If you and your spouse remain amicable, you may even be able to draft your divorce settlement entirely outside of the courtroom. 

You may consider mediation or collaborative law practices to support your negotiations. Your attorney will help you choose the best method to develop your settlement according to your situation.

6. Attending Court

If there are any matters you cannot settle on your own, you will need to schedule court hearings. Usually, you will need one hearing per issue that must be resolved. In California, you may do this through the public family courts or hire a private judge to preside over the matter. Working with private judges is typically faster and less public, but it may cost more. In both cases, the judge will hear both sides’ arguments before ruling on a specific matter. 

The judge’s rulings along with any matters you have settled out of court will be incorporated into your final divorce decree. Once this is issued, your split is final, and you can move on with your life. 

Prepare for Divorce in California

When you know what to expect during divorce, the process is less intimidating. The best way to start preparing for divorce is to speak with an experienced Marin County divorce lawyer.At Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, our skilled attorneys are deeply familiar with the demands of the divorce process. We are available to answer your questions about the different stages of divorce and to represent you throughout the process. Learn more about how our Bay Area divorce law firm can support you by scheduling your consultation today.