Today as I stood at the clerk’s office filing some papers, I watched a woman burst into tears at the window next to me. He frustration was palpable. She indicated she had gone and sought help and some issue had arisen because the attorney on the other side was still in the case and had not “substituted out”. Attorneys come into the case one of two ways: they file the original Petition for Dissolution with their name on it, or they “substitute in” either for the self-represented party or another attorney.
Family law is “form-driven” which means that unlike other areas of law, where you do not need a lot of forms, family law has mandatory forms that you MUST use or your paperwork will be rejected.
I have an advanced degree and am attorney, and even I end up with documents getting rejected. This is a function of the complexity of the system but also the jury-rigged nature of the procedures. Much law, although artfully designed, is the result of jury-rigging. I do not mean that in the legal context (as in bribing jurors), I mean that the courts are often making things up as they go along. For example, you will have local rules, your California Rules of Court, and your Code of Civil Procedure, all of which may conflict with one another. To be blunt, simply filing something can be maddening.
To file for divorce, have a look at the website for the Sonoma Superior Court. The site shows various “packets” that you can use depending upon the facts of your case. There may be children, no children, assets, no assets, you may want legal separation instead of divorce, there may be a domestic partnership.
The system is not deliberately confusing, the problem is that relationships are factually complex and the procedures are created by people who seldom themselves use the system. Although there are some good examples of relatively simply processes (small claims, for example) where the forms are well-designed, most of them are simply not. It is good to have someone experienced to help you through them.
If you find yourself frustrated with the process, hiring an attorney can take some of the pain away.
The first step is to file petition for dissolution and serve it on the other side. Then they either respond or not. Either way, the next step is to get a judgment, either through a court decision or an agreement. Everything that happens in between the filing of the Petition and the Judgment is where most of the action takes place. If you think you can handle it, then great. If not, just remember, a lawyer now is usually cheaper than a lawyer later.