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Marriage Dissolution Vs. Divorce in California Differences Explained

When spouses decide to end their marriage, there are usually many questions about the process. During this turbulent time, it helps to understand California’s divorce law, timeline, and process, including the terminology. One of the first questions often involves confusion over terms sometimes used interchangeably. In California, is there a difference between the dissolution of a marriage and a divorce?

What are Divorce and Dissolution Agreements in California?

When a movement away from fault-based divorce began in California in the 1960s, it ended in the 1969 signing into law of Governor Reagan’s Family Law Act. At that time the courts also left behind the legal term “divorce” in favor of a one that connotates a more mutually agreed-upon legal end to a marriage, dissolution. Unlike fault-based divorce, a no-fault dissolution of marriage in California only requires one or both parties to cite irreconcilable differences as a reason to end their marriage. Whether or not a spouse committed adultery, abandonment, or any of the other faults that divorcing couples once had to show as cause for divorce can no longer be used against the other in court. For marriage dissolution, the only other cause recognized by the California courts is incurable insanity.
While people today still commonly use the word “divorce” to mean a legal end to their marriage, in California you’ll notice that all paperwork for the divorce process, including the final decree, states that it’s a dissolution of marriage. Dissolution refers to the more equitable results of today’s marriage endings.

What is a Summary Dissolution of Marriage in California?

Sometimes further confusing the matter, separated spouses may hear the term “summary divorce” in California. While this sounds appealing because it brings to mind a faster, summarized divorce process, not every married couple can file for a summary dissolution of their marriage. While it’s true that a summary dissolution is a faster, lower-cost divorce alternative, only couples meeting specific requirements qualify for this type of divorce. In order to file for a summary dissolution, both spouses must meet the following prerequisites:

  • They must agree that they have irreconcilable differences
  • At least one spouse must have lived in California for 6 months or more and resided in the county in which they are filing for 3 or more months
  • They must have no biological or adopted children under the age of 18 and the wife may not be pregnant
  • The marriage must have lasted fewer than 5 years
  • Neither spouse qualifies if they own real estate property or lease with an option to purchase
  • Neither spouse can have over $38,000 in separate property and together they have less than $38,000 in joint property, with no contentious issues over property division
  • Neither spouse has more than $6,000 in debt, with the exception of car loans
  • Both spouses must agree to waive the option of spousal support
  • Both spouses must acknowledge they have read a summary dissolution information packet
  • Both spouses must waive their right to appeal after the final dissolution

While the terms divorce and dissolution are often used interchangeably, a summary dissolution is distinctly different and only available for a small percentage of divorcing couples. Spouses seeking a summary divorce in California still must wait six months after the initial filing period for the dissolution to move forward; however, they only pay a single filing fee and the process moves quickly after the end of the mandatory 6-month waiting period.