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Divorce, separation or annulment: Your legal options in California
In California, married couples may be able to pursue divorce, separation or annulment to alter their union.

California has three ways in which a married couple may alter their union: divorce, separation or annulment. Certain requirements apply for each option, and in some cases, very specific points must be proven to a judge. This article provides a basic overview of these options, but California couples who are thinking about divorce should consider contacting an attorney for legal assistance, especially if you are in a domestic partnership.


In California, spouses most frequently end their marriages through divorce. Because California is a “no-fault” divorce state, a married couple may get a divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences. The individuals do not need to prove the other did something wrong or specify a reason for the divorce, such as adultery. It is sufficient that the couple has significant differences that are beyond the possibility of repair.

However, certain residency requirements apply before one can get a divorce in California. At least one spouse must have lived in California for the six months preceding the divorce, and that individual must have lived in the county where the divorce petition will be filed for at least three months before filing. In addition, the divorce cannot be finalized until at least six months have passed from the time the other spouse was officially notified of the divorce action.

In the divorce, a judge may issue orders about:

  • Property, asset and debt division
  • Spousal support
  • Child custody and visitation
  • Child support
  • Contribution towards attorney fees

These orders are legally binding documents that must be followed. If an individual wishes to modify an order or its instructions, both parties must return to court. After a divorce is finalized, the individuals are single and free to remarry.

Legal separation

If divorce is not appropriate for a married couple, they may pursue legal separation. In a legal separation, the parties may live separately, but the marriage remains intact. Individuals who are separated are not permitted to marry someone else because the marriage is not dissolved.

Legal separation may be a preferable option for couples who do not want to get divorced for personal or religious reasons. It also may be used to preserve access to a spouse’s benefits, like health insurance, or when the residency requirements for divorce are not met and the couple does not want to wait. If a separation is granted, the couple may be able to seek a divorce later once the residency requirements are satisfied.

All that is required for a legal separation is that at least one spouse lives in California. In a legal separation, the judge may issue orders covering child custody, family support, and property division matters as well.


An annulmentis legal recognition that your marriage was not legally valid, and the result is that it is treated like your marriage did not exist. An annulment may be granted only in limited circumstances, such as when:

  • The marriage was between close relatives
  • One spouse was already married to someone else
  • One spouse was under age 18 at the time of the marriage
  • The marriage was the result of fraud, force or exploitation of one who is or was physically or mentally incapacitated

No time restrictions apply for an annulment, so a marriage may be annulled on the basis of one of these reasons shortly after the marriage or several years later.

No matter which option is pursued — divorce, separation or annulment — legal counsel from an experienced family law attorney is invaluable. If you are thinking of ending your marriage in California, contact a divorce lawyer to discuss which path is right for you.

Keywords: divorce, separation, annulment
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