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  • Writer's pictureRyan Beiser

What are “divorce papers” in California? How will I get them?

When people refer to “divorce papers,” they are generally referring to the legal documents that start a divorce case (e.g., “damn, she served me with divorce papers!”). In this post, I will refer to the initial documents in a California divorce case as “divorce papers.”

At a minimum, you will receive 3, or 4 (if you have minor children), California Judicial Council forms. Sometimes the petitioner will serve more forms, but I’m trying to keep it simple. Let’s expand:

"This form starts a divorce, legal separation, or annulment case if you are married, registered domestic partners, or both. You must identify all the issues you want to include in your final divorce." -California Courts Self-Help Guide

Ryan’s notes: This form is boring and routine for the most part. Most of the information called for in the form fields are uncontroversial facts such as your date of marriage. Nonetheless, you should read the form carefully. The most important thing to realize is that the petitioner doesn’t necessarily want what they have requested by checking various boxes. The Constitution of the United States requires that a party to a lawsuit have notice of the action and an opportunity to be heard. Attorneys typically check the most extreme requests because they must assume there is a chance the Respondent will not participate in the case after being served with the Petition. By checking the most extreme requests, the petitioner is, in a way, reserving the right to later make the request. Like calling in a reservation to a restaurant, you don’t necessarily need to eat there.

"Tells your spouse or domestic partner that a court case has started, and what can happen if they don't file a response in 30 days. It has very important orders you both must follow on page 2." -California Courts Self-Help Guide

Ryan’s notes: This form is definitely worth taking seriously because the second page contains court orders that you must follow effective on the date you are served. You must carefully read page two and comply with the orders or you risk being held in contempt of court and possibly even jailed.

"Use only if you and your spouse or domestic partner have children under 18 together. Tells the court where your children were born and live and if there are any other court cases involving them." -California Courts Self-Help Guide

Ryan’s notes: The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) address the problematic situation where the California court may or may not have the authority to make orders respecting children. For example, what if Dad, who lives in New York files a child custody request there, even though the children have no connection with New York other than spending Summer break there with their father. Upon learning this, Mom files a custody request in California, where the children have lived all their lives. The UCCJEA contemplates these issues and provides rules on how to solve them. Most of the time, however, this form is routine.

"Allows your spouse to respond to your petition. You'll have to serve a blank copy of this form when you serve your other papers." -California Courts Self-Help Guide

Ryan’s notes: This is your chance to respond to each and every allegation contained in the Petition. Don’t be shy, you can check the boxes indicating you want sole legal and sole physical custody of the minor children, especially if the petitioner checked the same boxes in their favor.

Bottom Line

The forms aren’t as complicated as you may think, but read them carefully, again and again, and make sure all information is accurate.

"You've been served!"

How will you get the divorce papers, you may ask? Well, someone is going to physically hand them to you. There are exceptions to this rule, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, you will be personally served. If you and your spouse or partner haven’t discussed the service procedure, odds are that an associate of the petitioner or a totally random person, called a process server, will hunt you down. They may say, “you’ve been served,” or they may not. You may get a phone call from the server attempting to meet you somewhere. It's not a fun experience, but eventually reality sinks in and then it is on to making the next right decision.


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