If you know someone who has been through a divorce in California, you probably know it can be quite expensive. But what if you can’t foot a costly legal bill? Can you get a free divorce in California, a state with a reputation for being pricey?

Under the right circumstances, you can file for divorce for free — without a divorce lawyer involved. To do this, you and your spouse will have to meet the state’s requirements to file for an indigent divorce. It helps to have a conflict-free relationship with your spouse and be in a mutual agreement about child support and custody, alimony, and the division of assets and debts.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the cost of a divorce in California and provide a breakdown of the steps you need to take to get a free divorce.

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Can I Get a Free Divorce in California?

It is absolutely possible to get a free divorce in California but only if you meet certain qualifications. Let’s break it down.

The average cost of a divorce in California can range from $8,400 to $17,500. The exact amount will vary depending on the circumstances of your separation and the complexity of the marriage. The cost can be significantly reduced if you are dealing with an uncontested divorce, but it can increase if there are disputes. Although it’s sometimes easier said than done, both parties will benefit by going through the process as amicably as possible.

In California, the current court filing fee for divorce is $435. The fee is required regardless of whether the divorce is contested or uncontested. Other expenses include fees for copying and sharing court documents and compensation for consultants and witnesses, such as financial analysts and appraisers. Then you have to factor in a divorce attorney’s hourly rate, which can range anywhere from $300 to $500 an hour in California.

Who Qualifies for a Free Divorce in California?

Don’t have the money? Don’t despair. California has an indigent divorce option for people with limited finances. If you qualify, you can file for divorce and then request the court to waive all court filing fees. The waiver won’t cover any fees related to private consultants or analysts.

To apply for a fee waiver for a free divorce in California, you must first obtain all relevant fee waiver forms and provide all requested financial information. Next, you will have to provide a financial disclosure to prove your need.  A court clerk will then review the paperwork and approve the waiver if you meet the requirements.

Steps to File for a California Divorce

Whether or not you qualify for a free divorce in California, these steps remain consistent:

  1. Select a divorce court in your county. You can find a list of all the superior courts in the state here.
  2. Take completed forms to the court clerk and file them. You need to apply for a fee waiver if you can’t afford the court filing fee.
  3. Notify your spouse that the divorce has been filed. Either have them sign forms that show they are aware of the current proceedings or legally serve them the relevant court papers. You can alternatively publish a legal notice if you are unable to locate your spouse.
  4. The served party has 30 days to respond. If they fail to do so, you may be able to proceed by filing a request to enter default and proceed unilaterally to a final judgment.
  5. File for division of community of property. This ensures that child and spousal support is fair for both parties.
  6. Request a final judgment. After 30 days, if you and your spouse agree, or if your spouse does not respond, you can request the court to enter a final judgment.
  7. There is a waiting period of about six months between filing the divorce petition and the date your marriage is considered legally “terminated.”  Both you and your spouse will receive a copy of the judgment.

What Are You Entitled to in a Divorce?

California works on a community property basis. That means anything purchased or earned during the marriage belongs to both spouses. Community property includes:

  • Houses
  • Cars
  • Bank accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Stocks
  • Pension plans
  • And more

Divorcing couples must divide all community property equally (50/50) unless they mutually agree to a different division. The court determines which assets are community property versus separate property. Separate property refers to any assets acquired before the marriage, after separation or via inheritance during the marriage.

What Happens When Your Divorce Request Is Granted?

If your fee waiver is granted, you won’t have to pay for the following:

  • Filing papers in superior court
  • Making and certifying copies of divorce forms
  • Requesting the sheriff’s office give notice to your spouse
  • Having an interpreter during hearings
  • Having a court hearing by telephone
  • Giving notice and certificates
  • Sending papers to other court departments
  • Preparing, copying, and certifying a clerk’s transcript on appeal and transmitting it to the appellate court and the party.

As you can see, getting a fee waiver gets you much more than an exemption from the $435 filing fee. After the waiver is approved, then your case can move forward. The simplest way to proceed is to file a settlement. With a marital settlement agreement, the entire proceeding can be easily completed without a court hearing. The judge will review your agreement and, if it complies with all of the statutory requirements, make the agreement part of your divorce judgment.

Another option is to move ahead with the divorce as an uncontested procedure, where your ex does not even need to appear in court. Uncontested divorces are normally faster, so many people prefer them. You can get a quick divorce without any legal costs if you and your spouse are in agreement about custody of any minor children, visitation issues, child support, alimony, and property division.

What Happens When Your Fee Waiver Request Is Denied?

The fee waiver request can be denied for two reasons: it is incomplete, or the family court thinks you’re not eligible. The judge will check the reason your request was denied on the second page of Form FW-003.

If your waiver is denied without a hearing, you have 10 days from the date written at the bottom of the form to:

  • Pay the required fees
  • File a new request if the last one was incomplete
  • Attempt to schedule a hearing to provide the court with more information

If you request a hearing, the court will set a date for you (page 2 of Form FW-003 under item 4c). Make sure you go to the hearing and bring any documents the court asks for. If you don’t go to the hearing, your waiver application will be denied, and you will have to pay the required fees within 10 days.

If you choose not to follow any of the mentioned solutions, then the court will cancel the divorce papers you filed with your waiver request. You can end up missing important deadlines or have to start your divorce proceedings all over again.

Get Help With Your California Divorce

This might seem like a lot of information. But whether you can get a free divorce in California or will have to pay some filing fees, the process doesn’t have to be stressful or complicated. 

The steps for divorce are easy to follow, but the paperwork can be confusing. If you require additional assistance but don’t want to spend money on an attorney, consider hiring a legal document assistant.

A People’s Choice offers affordable help to couples seeking an uncontested divorce. Our team of legal document assistants is available at any time to help you through each step. We’ve helped hundreds of people successfully file for divorce in California for a one-time flat fee.