Law Offices of Lisa Staight
A Professional Law Corporation
Certified Family Law Specialist
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California Divorce Timeline
The following is a general overview of the procedures and general time line of the divorce process in California. This is a general guideline applicable to most situations; it does not cover every fact situation or every possible variation. Every divorce has special considerations, so the procedures and length of time will vary with each case.
File and Serve
To start the Dissolution process, one or the other of the spouses must file a Petition with the court. The individual who files the Petition is known as the “Petitioner,” and the other is the “Respondent.” The date the Respondent receives the Petition (is served) is significant because it marks the beginning of the six-month waiting period.
Once the Respondent receives the Petition, he or she has 30 days to file a Response. (In some cases, there are reasons why the Respondent may be given more than 30 days.) Once a Response is filed by the Respondent, a hearing may be scheduled for the case, if needed.
If support, custody or other disputes (that need to be promptly resolved) are a concern, a Request for Order (RFO) is also filed. If this is done, the parties will be given a court date so that temporary custody, support, or other orders can be made. The Respondent will file a response to the RFO and both parties will be heard at the RFO hearing.
In situations in which custody is an issue, the court requires Custody Mediation to take place. The Custody Mediation must be completed before the first hearing occurs. The attorney does not attend the mediation, but it is an important and court required step.
If one is filing for a modification of custody or support from an existing case, this same procedure would be followed.
Declaration of Disclosure
Each party must serve on the other a full disclosure of all income, expenses, property and debts. There are two sets of disclosures, “Preliminary and Final Declarations of Disclosure.” These are not filed with the court, but served on the other party. The Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure is required to be served by each party near the beginning of the divorce. After each party has had the opportunity to review the other's disclosures, discussions will take place between their respective attorneys to reconcile any differences. This can take place quite quickly, or, obviously, in more complex cases it will take longer. In any event, each party must serve his/her Final Declaration of Disclosure before the case can be finalized (in some cases parties stipulate to waive the Final Declaration of Disclosure-waiver should be discussed with your attorney before agreeing to do so).
If parties are in agreement, and the Response has been filed, and disclosures exchanged, then a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) or stipulated judgment can be drafted. Usually one of the attorneys will draft the agreement and it will be reviewed by the other attorney. Once both sides approve the agreement it is signed and submitted to the court.
It is not the typical situation that the parties are in agreement on all the issues at the outset. This is true for a number of reason apart from whether the parties are cooperative or acrimonious. It is more typical, simply, that more information is needed. It may not come as a surprise that the parties do not know all they need to know about their finances and assets – in which case they must do “discovery.”
Discovery is an established part of the divorce process. The purpose of this discovery is for the parties to learn about all the assets and debts to be divided and issues to be resolved in their divorce. It is a process by which each party can ask questions of the other and demand production of documents or other potential evidence relevant to the case. And the other party is obligated to respond.
Discovery takes place outside the courtroom, through the parties' attorneys. If all goes well, it is completed there. If a party fails to respond to a discovery request, responds incompletely, or withholds or hides information, the requesting party may file a motion with the court for an order compelling answers or production. Monetary penalties or other sanctions can be applied for non-compliance.
Discovery can be informal or formal. In the case of informal discovery, each side voluntarily exchanges information with the other side. In a suitable case, informal discovery has the advantages of being less costly and it can possibly yield broader information. However, there are both advantages and disadvantages of informale discovery to which should be discussed with your attorney.
Formal discovery may consist of any or all of the following, and the responses must verified under oath:
Interrogatories [Formal written questions]
Depositions [Formal testimony taken under oath, transcribed by a court reporter]
Subpoenas and Requests for production of documents [To banks, financial institutions, employers, businesses or the other spouse in which a party is involved, etc.]
Court-ordered examination of persons or property
Motions for physical and mental examinations
It is important for the attorney and client to work together to develop a suitable discovery plan. Discovery is a necessary phase of most divorces so that one can be fully aware of all the assets before entering to a settlement. A well prepared discovery plan can be a very good investment.
Settlement After Completion of Discovery
When the parties determine that they have enough information to go forward, through their attorneys they will draft a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). The MSA will set forth an equal division of the community property and will specify the terms of child custody, visitation, support and other issues. If it is a full disposition of all the issues, the case will then proceed as an uncontested matter, as explained above, and proceed to judgment.
If the MSA is not a full disposition of all the issues, the remaining issues must be decided by the judge. It is obvious that the more issues that can be resolved by agreement, the trial will be less complex.
Memorandum to Set for Trial
Once the case ready to go to trial, the attorney files and serves on the other side, the “At Issue Memorandum for Trial Setting.” Up to this time, much of the activity – the negotiations and discovery – have been proceeding outside the court. The “At Issue Memorandum for Trial Setting” is the notice to the court that your matter is ready to be placed on the court calendar, that it will be requiring a courtroom and all the court resources that go with it. This will initiate a number of court dates and pre-trial activity leading up to the trial.
Trial Setting Conference
Generally the court will set a Trial Setting Conference. At the Trial Setting Conference, the court will want information about your case that will help the court know how to best allocate its resources. The attorneys will appear before the judge and will provide a "time estimate" of how long they believe the trial will take.
Depending on the case time estimate, the complexity of the issues, and the court resources available, different things may happen. If your case is expected to take one day or less, your case may be assigned directly to trial on a specific date, but more likely it will be ordered to standby, in a holding pattern, until a courtroom is available. (This maximizes the use of the limited number of courtrooms, but makes planning difficult and stressful for litigants.)
If your case will take longer than one day, you may be given a court date a few months down the road with a longer time reserved for your case. You will likely be given a date for a Mandatory Settlement Conference which will take place about a month before the trial date, and the court may make other orders to assure that your case is ready on the date and time assigned.
Mandatory Settlement Conference
Prior to trial, both spouses and their attorneys will attend the Mandatory Settlement Conference, or "MSC." The MSC is a very important date. The courts dedicate their resources to it with the intention of obtaining results (resolution). It is to be taken seriously. At this conference both sides will be given the opportunity to discuss the remaining issues of the case and possibly settle as many of them as possible.
Both attorneys are required to prepare an MSC Brief which will be submitted to the court and provided to the opposing side. This brief will outline your position on the issues, and will contain the facts and arguments supporting them. If the case does not settle, this brief will become the blueprint for the trial brief. A well written MSC Brief will help frame the issues and shape the judge's understanding of the issues, and shape the course of the trial.
At the MSC your attorney will "meet and confer" with opposing counsel so they can discuss the issues and work toward a resolution.
While many divorce cases settle at the MSC, those that don't will have the opportunity to settle as many issues as possible. For example, you may not agree on the division of all property, but you may agree on some.
If all issues haven't been resolved at the MSC, then the case moves forward with trial. At trial, all the rules and procedures of court, and rules of evidence will come in to play. Each side will present his/her case and it will be subject to cross-examination and rebuttal. Depending on the issues brought to trial, the court hears testimony by parties, witnesses and expert witnesses, in addition to reviewing evidence. will expect all the participants to be prepared and to use the court time and resources efficiently. After all the evidence is presented, the judge may make a ruling at the close of the case. Other times, he/she may take it “under submission” – in which case, the judge will take time to review the evidence, and will send out the decision.
After the judge has made a ruling, the judgment will need to be prepared. There are different avenues how this may be accomplished. Usually, the judge directs one of the attorneys to prepare the judgment, which is then submitted to the opposing counsel for approval as to form and content, then submitted to court for entry.
Material presented on The Law Office of Lisa Staight, APLC, website is provided for general information purposes only. It is not intended to constitute a complete or definitive statement of the law. It may not apply to one's own factual and legal situation. It is not intended as professional advice and may not be relied upon as such.
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The Law Office of Lisa Staight, APLC, is located in Irvine, California, and practices law in Orange County, California. Its attorneys are licensed to practice law in the State of California. The Law Office of Lisa Staight, APLC, does not solicit legal business from clients located in other states. One must seek professional assistance from a licensed lawyer in one's own state/jurisdiction.
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The Law Offices of Lisa Staight, A.P.L.C., practices law in Orange County, California and is located in Irvine, California. Attorney's of the Law Offices of Lisa Staight are licensed to practice law in the State of California