To begin a divorce in the state of California, one spouse must file a Petition in his/her local courthouse. The person who files the Petition is called the "Petitioner." After filing the paperwork, it must then be personally served upon the other spouse. The person who is served is called the "Respondent." Once the paperwork is served, the time begins to run and that spouse has thirty days to file a Response. The Response tells the court that the Respondent intends to participate in the divorce proceedings and wants to be notified of any upcoming court dates.
If the Respondent fails to file a Response within 30 days, the case proceeds without the Respondent's participation. This is called proceeding by "default." If the case proceeds by default, the Petitioner prepares a divorce judgment and submits it to the court. The Petitioner will usually be able to get whatever orders he or she requests. Once the judge signs the judgment, the case is concluded. However, the divorce will not be granted until the six month waiting period has expired. If the Respondent files a Response, both parties are allowed to participate in the divorce proceeding.
Sometimes one or both of the parties will need the court to make orders before the trial date. Either party may file Request for Order at any time before the trial, asking the court to make temporary orders regarding child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees, or other matters. The judge will make orders on these limited issues after conducting a hearing. These orders are temporary orders and are only good until the day of trial.
Sometimes the couple can voluntarily resolve all their issues through settlement. If a settlement is reached, the parties prepare a Marital Settlement Agreement, which later becomes the divorce judgment. It is possible that the case is concluded without ever having to attend court. If the parties are not able to reach an agreement, the case will go to trial. Even if the parties must go to trial, they will often be able to resolve some or most of the issues before the trial. The parties can prepare and sign a Partial Judgment, which outlines all the issues they have agreed on. This becomes part of the final divorce judgment after the court decides the rest of the case.
At trial, each attorney presents evidence and arguments. The judge decides all the unresolved issues, including child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees and property division. The judgment is prepared and approved by the attorneys and then submitted to the court. Once the judge signs the judgment and the six month waiting period has elapsed, the divorce becomes final.
Even after the judgment is entered if the parties' circumstances change, either party can later return to court and ask the judge to modify the judgment. However, the court's power to modify the judgment is normally restricted to orders concerning child custody, child visitation, child support, and spousal support upon a finding of a change of circumstances. Normally, issues concerning division of property cannot be modified.