What happens when you know it’s time to move on from an unhappy marriage or domestic partnership, but you’re not sure if you can afford to file for divorce? It’s no secret that divorce can get expensive. Even if you’re representing yourself, the court filing fees alone cost hundreds of dollars.

Fortunately, it is possible to get a divorce without any court fees if you can prove to the court that you’re in a tough financial situation. California has a fee waiver system for couples who are low income and can’t afford the required filing fees.

Following the procedure to have the court fees waived may seem like a pain, but it is a huge relief for individuals who want to end a marriage and don’t have the necessary funds. This guide covers everything you need to know about getting a free divorce in California.

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How Do I Get a Divorce Without Money?

The truth about divorce is that even if you can afford it, it doesn’t have to be that pricey. Contrary to popular belief, a divorce lawyer is not always required. The divorce process in California is specifically designed so you can do it yourself—no family law attorney needed!

All the California divorce forms are available for free to anyone who needs them. If you can manage to fill them out correctly, then all you need to do is pay the court filing fees to start the process. Family law courts in California, which is a no-fault state, offer self-help programs with a step-by-step guide to help individuals through the divorce petition process.

If you don’t have the funds to file for divorce, the state has a fee waiver procedure that allows you to ask the court to waive all of the court fees associated with the process. This procedure is specifically designed to help couples with limited finances who want to end their marriage.

How to Obtain Divorce Forms

The first step before you can get the fees waived is to obtain all the required divorce forms. The California courts website has an entire section dedicated to the forms a couple needs to fill out to finalize a divorce. There is a self-help guide with step-by-step instructions that can help you through the process.

Another option is to go down to the county courthouse and get the divorce documents from the county clerk. The court clerk may be able to help you complete the forms and answer any questions you have. Fill in all the requested information, including details about assets, debts, and children. You also have to indicate if you are requesting child support, alimony, or division of marital assets (i.e. community property).

Note: Make sure you meet your state residency requirements. You can’t file for divorce in California unless you meet them.

Applying for a Fee Waiver

In addition to the standard divorce forms, you also need to fill out the forms for requesting a fee waiver. The state of California allows couples who can’t afford to pay the court filing fee to ask for a waiver. There are three ways to qualify:

  • You are receiving public benefits such as General Assistance, Medi-Cal, Food Stamps (CalFresh), Cal-Works, SSI, SSP, Tribal TANF, IHHS or CAPI
  • Your household income before taxes is less than the amounts listed on Form FW-001 under item 5b
  • The court confirms that you can’t afford to pay for your household’s basic needs as well as the court fees

If you qualify ask for a fee waiver, then:

  • Fill out the fee waiver form (Form FW-001)
  • Sign the form to confirm you are telling the truth and all your answers are accurate and complete
  • Print two copies of your complete Form FW-001 and give one to the court clerk. They will tell you how long it will take to process your waiver request.

All of the above forms are available on the Fee Waivers page on the California courts website. Click this link to access them.

What Financial Proof Is Required?

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To have your divorce fees waived, you need to prove to the court that you need financial assistance. The court requires proof of your income, assets, and debts. It may also request tax returns. The fee waiver forms list out all of the documents the court needs.

Once you’ve completed all the required paperwork, you need to file the papers. The documents will need to be notarized. You can get the forms notarized at your bank if you have one, or you can ask the court clerk to notarize the forms for you when you file them.

Compiling all of those documents may seem like a lot of work—and it is. But you would have had to gather all of that information regardless of whether you need financial assistance. Everyone filing for divorce in California is required to provide the court with a financial disclosure, so this isn’t really an extra step.

Once you’ve filed the required paperwork, a court clerk reviews everything. A hearing may be necessary so that a judge can ask you some questions about any legal issues. Your fee waiver may be approved by the court, or the court may decide to defer your fee and allow you to pay it later. The latter is common if your ex has assets and will be making payments to you as part of the divorce judgment.

What Happens When Your Waiver 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 $425 filing fee! After the waiver is approved, then your case can move forward. The simplest way to proceed is to file a settlement. You and your spouse can also appear in court and tell the judge your settlement agreement.

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 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 up a hearing 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 proceeding all over again.

Get Help With Your California Divorce

A do-it-yourself divorce can be a lot of work. If you get stuck at any point, you could seek assistance from a volunteer divorce attorney through your city’s bar association or from a legal aid society. These organizations provide no-cost or low-cost legal assistance and divorce mediation to persons in need.

Another option is to use a registered legal document assistant service like A People’s Choice to complete the paperwork for you. Our legal document assistants can professionally prepare the legal forms so you can file them yourself starting at just $250.

While our legal document assistants can’t offer you legal advice, they can provide you with filing instructions so you can successfully finalize your divorce. We’ve helped thousands of people in Orange County, Sacramento County, Alameda County, and more with their divorce. Call us today to get started!

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