One of the first questions you may have if you’re thinking about divorce is “Do I have to go to court?” The answer is “No” so long as you can reach agreement with your spouse about how you’re going to divide your property and debts; how you’re each going to pay your living expenses going forward; and, if you have children, how you’re going to share parenting time and contribute to their support. You may be able to reach agreement on your own or with the help of a mediator or consulting or collaborative attorney. If so, you don’t ever need to set foot inside a courtroom, but you still need to complete the following three legal steps to complete your uncontested divorce.

Step 1: Start your case with the court and give your spouse notice.

The first step in the legal process of divorce in California is to file the required initial forms with the court in your county and then to serve these documents on your spouse. To “serve” means to have another adult give the papers to your spouse in the proper legal way. This first step starts your case with the court and gives your spouse proper notice of the legal proceedings. The earliest you can be divorced is six months and one day from the date your spouse was served with the Petition and Summons.

Step 2: Exchange your financial information.

The second step in the legal process is for you and your spouse to exchange financial information. California has mandatory forms for this purpose. You attach copies of pay statements, account statements, and other financial documents to the forms, and you also exchange all tax returns filed by either of you in the past two years. These financial documents are not filed with the court. However, you do each need to file a form with the court showing that the disclosures were exchanged.

Step 3: Prepare and submit your settlement agreement and judgment paperwork.

The third step in the legal process is to prepare a written settlement agreement. The settlement agreement describes what you and your spouse have agreed to regarding the division of your assets and debts; spousal support (alimony), if any; and, if you have children, legal custody, parenting time, and child support. The settlement agreement is submitted to the court, along with other required forms, to obtain a stipulated judgment of divorce. The divorce is final once your judgment paperwork has been reviewed and signed by a judge and filed with the court. The judgment will show the date that marital status is terminated, meaning your divorce is final and you are legally single again.

Consult with an experienced mediator or family law attorney if you need help.

Some couples find that they can come to agreement on all of the relevant issues without professional support and just need help preparing the necessary paperwork. If reaching agreement is challenging in your case, you can still stay out of court by negotiating your settlement with the help of a skilled mediator or consulting attorney, or with the support of a collaborative team.