A Guide to Uncontested Divorce in California

Hands on a railing holding a wedding band

When two people take their wedding vows, the last thing that they want is for their spiritual and civil union to end before “death do us part.” There’s plenty of data to suggest that marriages in the U.S. are more resilient than previously believed.  While it’s hard to pin down divorce statistics, the old 50 percent divorce metric appears to be more myth than reality.

Nevertheless, when marriages do fail, the experience is often a profoundly painful one — emotionally, psychologically, practically, and financially speaking. The trauma of divorce can draw out the worst between the married couple themselves, but also draw in their children and extended families and friends into a potentially ugly process. Given the potential for long-term difficulties, especially in divorce cases where children are involved, how can a couple help ease the transition from a nuclear to a separated family? One solution is an uncontested divorce.

The Uncontested Divorce in California

Be aware that an uncontested divorce has nothing to do with a “no-fault” divorce. California is a “no-fault” divorce state, meaning that a divorce may be sought without assignment of blame for some form of marital misconduct. A “no-fault” divorce itself can be useful in terms of creating a more harmonious environment for the family in the event of divorce, but it is only part of the story, and perhaps not the most important part of the story. 

While many of us like to believe that we can rise above the fray where our money and resources are concerned, like it or not, the economic fallout from divorce can be the driver for a great many other forms of conflict. The difference between an uncontested vs. a contested divorce in California is, quite simply, one in which the married spouses agree completely to all terms with regard to the division of financial assets. That’s it. If the couple disagrees on any element of the division of assets, the divorce is then “contested.” 

An asset is anything that has “real value,” meaning monetizable value, including both real estate and personal property.  That said, it’s important to note that while technically, the matter of an “uncontested” or “default” divorce is relevant to financial assets, other aspects of the divorce agreement are implied.  For example, the California courts identify key aspects of an uncontested agreement of which all partners should be aware.  They include:

  • Division of property and debt,
  • Spousal or partner support, and
  • Child support and custody and visitation orders if you have children.

How Much Legal Advice Do You Need?

Understand that an uncontested divorce in California does not imply a “non-negotiated agreement.” Especially in the case of couples who share children and significant assets, a person who wishes to arrange an uncontested divorce in California should seek legal and perhaps tax and accounting counsel before filing for divorce or agreeing to the terms of divorce papers filed by their spouse or partner. 

Failing to analyze the proposed agreement with qualified professionals would be a mistake with potentially devastating long-term consequences. Regardless, the degree of legal support required to either construct or review a potential uncontested divorce agreement is far less than the expense of legal professionals in the case of a contested divorce, so every effort should be made to negotiate an agreement that both parties determine to be fair and equitable. 

Uncontested vs. Contested Divorce In California — Evaluating the Bottom Line

Once a divorce becomes “contested,” regardless of the initial value of a couple’s assets, spouses or partners spend valuable funds on legal counsel in order to prevail in court, which could impact their bottom line and existing financial assets, potentially.

Prior to contesting a divorce agreement, it’s worthwhile doing an estimate and cost-benefit analysis of how much you will have to invest — in time, money, and emotional and psychological energy — in order to secure an agreement you believe to be fair and equitable. As hard as it sounds in the case of divorce, do your very best to depersonalize your analysis, compartmentalizing the financial aspects of the dissolution of your marriage or partnership from whatever personal grievance you may hold against the other party. Assess your options as you would any negotiation. Determine what is essential to achieve and what would be “nice to have” with regard to the terms of your agreement before you decide to contest a divorce filing.

An Ounce of Prevention — The Prenuptial Agreement

While many people view prenuptial agreements as an unromantic if not a cynical approach to marriage, nothing could be further from the truth. We live in an age where partners are more likely to bring their own independent assets and incomes into a marriage. Remember that outside of its religious and sacramental meaning, a marriage is essentially a civil agreement. Practically speaking, it is also an economic partnership.  The presence of a prenuptial agreement is itself an articulation of reasonable care and concern for the civil terms of the marriage relationship and a willingness to make reasonable accommodations to protect one’s own interests and that of one’s spouse. It is, in fact, a mature way to go about establishing the exact nature of your civil and economic partnership.  Additionally, a prenuptial agreement creates the terms and conditions that make an uncontested divorce more likely in the event of the dissolution of one’s marriage. 

In the end, no one is ever harmed by planning ahead for potentially difficult eventualities. The difference between going through an uncontested vs. a contested divorce in California can have a major impact on the health and well-being of an entire family and the trajectory of one’s life. Preparing in advance for a worst-case scenario while working to ensure the best possible life together is something all couples would be wise to do.

About Michael MacNeil

Michael C. MacNeil is a San Diego Family Law and Criminal Defense attorney. With a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law, MacNeil has a solid understanding of our justice system. As a member of the State Bar of California, MacNeal can practice before all courts in the state. MacNeil believes that the law should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. With over 20 years of experience, Michael C. MacNeil is passionate about the law and will work tirelessly to get the best possible outcome for you. Call Mr. MacNeil at 858-922-7098.