No. You do not have to have a lawyer when you go to court. In California, several hundred thousand people each year go to court without a lawyer. This is called being in "pro per" -- the legal term for a person representing him or herself without a lawyer. However, some cases are complicated. This is when a lawyer can be most helpful.
You may find that you need a lawyer if:
- anyone involved has an estate with substantial assets;
- anyone involved lives outside of California;
- there are some other legal proceedings going on at the same time;
- anyone involved has special needs (physically/emotionally disabled);
- anyone involved is a member of the armed services, or
- anyone involved is Native American (in which case, federal laws may apply).
Lawyers are trained to research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances you face. In addition to skills in legal research, a lawyer will usually have:
- familiarity with courtroom rules and procedures;
- an understanding of when a witness is needed, and how he or she should be prepared for a trial;
- an understanding of when an expert, consultant, or investigator is needed – where to find such a person, and how much is reasonable to pay; and
- experience with different strategies for effective presentation of a case in court.
If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer there are several options that may help.
- Every superior court in California has legal help available in family law and in small claims cases. Several superior courts can also help you with other legal issues. Find out what services are available at your court.
- There are legal aid offices in many cities throughout California. These are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to people below a certain income level. Find free and low-cost legal help in your area and find out what areas of law they cover.
- If you don’t have much money but the other party in your case does, the court might order the other party to pay for some or all of your lawyer’s fees. (You would have to ask the court for this. It is not automatic.)
- Many bar associations have Modest Means Panels made up of lawyers who will take certain kinds of cases for a reduced fee. (You would have to find your local bar association and ask if it could help you with this.)
- You may be able to find a lawyer who will coach you on representing yourself (called "coaching"), or who will only handle (and charge you for) the more complicated parts of your case. This is called "limited scope representation" or "unbundled legal services.” (Your local bar association may have a list of lawyers who do limited scope representation.)
Generally, lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law. They may specialize in trial law (civil or criminal), bankruptcy law, elder law, family law, etc. When working with a lawyer, it is important to know his or her specialty.
NOTE: A lawyer cannot represent you in Small Claims court but they may help you prepare for your case.
If you decide to hire a lawyer, make sure you understand:
- what you will be paying for,
- how much it will cost, and
- when you will be expected to pay your bill.
You may want to talk to several attorneys before you hire one.
- Go to the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Referral Service.
You can also find attorneys listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, or through the internet.
- Get more help finding free and low-cost legal aid.
If a couple gets a divorce, or ends their domestic partnership, the court may order one of them to pay the other a fixed amount of money each month.
There are no set formulas for how much money would have to be paid, or for how long. However, there are a few guidelines the court would follow.
The court will try to make the amount of money paid “just and reasonable, based on the standard of living established during the marriage.”
The court will take into account how long the couple was married, or in a registered domestic partnership, when deciding how long the support should be paid.
The court may tell the person receiving support that he or she should make reasonable effort to assist in providing for his or her own support needs. (see California Family Code, section 4330)
In California any person may ask for spousal or partner support as part of a legal separation process.
Two main factors are considered:
Each person’s ability to work, and his or her potential earnings based on age, training and likelihood of employment.
The reasonable needs of each person, considering age, health and lifestyle.
The other person’s ability to pay is also considered.
You can ask for spousal or partner support to be paid while your case is going on. This is called a "temporary spousal support order" or a "temporary partner support order."
Many counties have formulas for calculating the amount of a temporary spousal or partner support order. Check your court's local rules for the temporary support guideline in the court where you live.
REMEMBER: There is a Family Law Facilitator in each county who can help you?
Before spousal or partner support case can be ordered, the person asking for payment needs to know where his or her former spouse or partner can be found. Legally, this so that he or she can have court papers properly served.
There are many places to gather information about a person’s whereabouts including:
- Credit reporting agency records
- Employers – current and previous
- Law enforcement agencies, and parole and probation offices
- Military records
- Social services records
- State licensing boards
- Telephone books
- United States Postal Service
- Utility companies – current and previous
If the Department of Child Support Services is involved in the case, it can help a child’s parent to find the other parent.
Each person is expected to help contribute to their own support if they can. The goal is that each supported person will become self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. The amount of time will vary from case to case, but normally a support order will only be for a limited period of time.
Then making an order for spousal support, the court may tell the person who is going to receive support that he or she should make reasonable efforts to assist in providing for his or her support needs.
The court may order the person requesting support to meet with a career counselor. The counselor will assess the person’s ability to get a job. They will consider the person’s age, health, education, marketable skills, employment history, and the current availability of employment opportunities.
The court may order the person paying the support to pay for counseling, retraining, or education of the supported person so he or she can get a job.
If the court decides that a person can work, but isn't, the court may order them to look for work.
When the court is deciding the spousal support amount, it will look at the supported person’s “earning capacity.”
The judge will look at:
1. The marketable skills of the person asking for support.
- the job market for those skills.
- the time and cost required to get education or training to develop those skills.
- the need for retraining or education to acquire other, more marketable skills or employment.
2. Whether the supported person’s present or future ability to earn money is limited because of time during the marriage or domestic partnership when they were unemployed in order to spend time on domestic duties.
NOTE: Sometimes the court will decide that the person asking for support is able to work but is not making serious efforts to do so or is purposely making less money in order to get more support. In this case, the court may "impute" income to that person. This means it decides the amount the person could earn, and uses that amount to set spousal support. This reduces the amount of spousal support.
Usually, spousal support is:
- tax deductible for the paying spouse, and
- taxable income for the supported spouse.
Federal and state tax laws have not been changed to recognize domestic partners.
These laws can be complicated. You may want to talk with an attorney or accountant who is knowledgeable in this area of law.
The length of time that support has to be paid is linked to how long the marriage or domestic partnership lasted. However, it is up to the judge to decide after considering many factors.
- In California, there is a “rule of thumb” that support will last for one-half the length of the marriage or registered partnership. The judge may apply this to relationships that lasted 10 years or less.
- In marriages or registered domestic partnerships that lasted 10 years or more, the judge may take many factors into consideration when deciding how long support should be paid.
Spousal or partner support will automatically end when:
- One of the former spouses or partners dies.
- The person receiving support remarries or registers a new domestic partnership.
Spousal or partner support is based on the reasonable needs of the person asking for support and the ability of the other former spouse or partner to pay.
If the couple can agree on the amount of monthly spousal or partner support, and how long it will be paid, they can write down their agreement, get it
If they cannot agree on the amount of spousal or partner support , and how long it will be paid, they can ask the court to decide these issues.
There are no formulas for spousal or partner support like there are for child support. The judge will take many things into consideration in setting an amount.
There are no formulas for spousal or partner support. Each case will be looked at differently. The judge must take many things into account when deciding what spousal or partner support should be ordered. These factors include:
- The length of the marriage or domestic partnership.
- The age and health of each spouse or partner.
- How much money each can earn on his or her own.
- How many expenses each spouse or partner has.
- The debts and property of each person.
- What each person needs to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.
- Whether having a job would make it too hard to take care of any children.
- Whether one spouse or domestic partner helped the other get an education, training, career, or professional license.
- Whether one person's career was affected by unemployment, or by taking care of the children or home.
- The tax impact of spousal or partner support. Note: federal tax laws do not recognize domestic partnerships.
- Whether there was domestic violence in the marriage or domestic partnership.
The goal is for each supported person to become self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.
- A reasonable period of time for a marriage or domestic partnership that last for 10 years or less generally will be one-half the length of the marriage or partnership.
- A reasonable period of time for a marriage or domestic partnership that lasted for 10 or more years will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
A person’s standard of living is the level of economic well-being that he or she has. This includes things like income, housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, recreation and miscellaneous goods and services.
- When a couple gets divorced or ends a domestic partnership, the law tries to keep each person at the same level of economic well-being as they during the marriage or partnership.
- This is one of the things a judge has to look at when making a decision about how much money it is fair and reasonable to ask one former spouse or partner to pay the other.
- Support orders can only be made as part of the dissolution of a marriage or domestic partnership, or in a domestic violence proceeding. During this process both spouses or partners must give each other a full and accurate list of everything they own and owe.
- This is called disclosure. Disclosure of all financial matters is an essential step in creating a fair agreement between the two people.
- There are special forms for this. The forms do not have to be filed with the court, but the court must be given proof that the spouses or partners gave each other the required information.
“Standard of living” can include money set aside for the future – retirement benefits, for example.
This is an area of law that can get complicated. You might want to consider talking with a lawyer with experience in this field.
Former spouses or partners can agree (“
There is no specific court form to use to show the judge what has been agreed. Rather, write down the agreement on a sheet of paper:
- At the top, write some title like: “Stipulation for Spousal (or Partner) Support”
- The name, address, and phone number of each former spouse or partner. (Add a fax number or email address, if you have one.)
- The name and address of the court where your case is being heard.
- The case number you have been given by the court clerk.
- Next, write in the net monthly income of each former spouse or partner.
- State that one person (write in name) will pay the other person (write in name) the amount you have agreed on (write in amount).
- Write the date that the support payments will start, and how often they will be paid. (Weekly? Monthly? – write what has been decided by the two people.)
- Write something like: “We agree that we will promptly inform each other of any change of residence or employment, including the employer’s name, address, and telephone.
- Write something like: “We make this agreement freely without coercion or duress.”
Both former spouses or partners must sign the agreement (“stipulation”) and – if you don’t have attorneys – both signatures must be
If a couple ends their marriage or domestic partnership, the court may not grant a request for spousal or partner support:
- If the couple had no children together. AND
- If the person asking for support already has enough money to support him- or herself properly.
The court may also not grant a request for support to a spouse or partner who has been convicted of domestic violence against the person being asked to pay support.
Similarly, the court may not grant a request for support to a spouse or partner who has been convicted of attempting to murder the person being asked to pay support.
In most cases, you have to pay a fee to file papers with the court.
If a person can’t afford the court’s filing fees, there are forms he or she may file asking permission to not pay all or some of the court fees and costs. This is called getting the fees “waived,” and fee waiver packets are available at the courthouse for free, or can be downloaded from this site.
Eligibility for the fee waiver is based upon the person’s household income or if he or she is receiving public assistance. If a person files a fee waiver but is found not to be qualified, he or she must pay the appropriate filing fees.
To see if you qualify for a fee waiver, read:
- Information Sheet on Waiver of Court Fees and Costs (Form FW-001-INFO)
If you qualify for a fee waiver, select the forms you need.
If you were never served with any papers, the court may have ordered a “default judgment” order against you. You may be able to have the default and judgment canceled (called "set aside"). But you must act as soon as you find out that there was a default and judgment for support. If you don't act soon, the court may refuse to set the judgment aside.
If you don’t respond to the Order to Show Cause papers that were served to you, the person filing the case can get a “default judgment” entered against you. This means that they will get everything they ask for in their papers. This is why it is very important that you respond to any legal papers served to you and that you do not ignore them!
If a default judgment has been entered against you (because you failed to file a Response or appear in your case), there is a possibility that you still may be able to have the judge hear your side. A default judgment may be canceled, or “set aside”
- if you had a very good reason for not responding to your papers and
- if you try to take care of as soon as you realize what has happened.
However, getting a default judgment set aside is a very complicated legal issue. You may need to contact an attorney for legal advice. You can visit the Family Law Facilitator’s Office for more information?
If you can’t make the court hearing on the date that it is set, you may be able to ask the court for a “continuance.” A continuance is a rescheduling of the court hearing to a later date.
- A request for continuance should be made at the earliest possible time, but no later than one and one-half days before the hearing date.
- You must ask your former spouse or partner for the continuance. If he or she refuses, you have to file what is called an “
ex parte motion” to request the court to give you a continuance.
- If continuances are requested later than the one and one-half day cutoff, then the request must be made in person on the scheduled court date.
- Normally, no more than three continuances will be granted.
You must have a very good reason in order for the court to grant your request.
Even though people sometimes want to tell the judge something, or ask the court to do something before their next court hearing, the court is generally not allowed to get new information or be asked to do something unless the other party knows what is being said or asked and has a right to respond. Anything you want to tell the judge, or ask the court to do, must be given to the court on the right form and shared with your former spouse or partner.
File a Written Declaration
If you have a hearing scheduled soon, you may complete and file a:
- Declaration (Form MC-030) with the court.
Then, file your declaration with the court and have it served on your former spouse or partner.
Finally, a proof of service must be filed with the court.
The judge will then review the declaration when reviewing your file in preparation for the hearing.
If there is no hearing pending, the judge will not review your file.
If you want the court to do something, you will need to file a:
and accompanying forms to get a hearing scheduled.
The person who serves a copy of your papers to your former spouse or partner can be anyone over the age of 18 who is NOT involved in the case. The server could be a:
- County sheriff (in some counties – call the sheriff in the county where your former spouse or partner resides to check.)
- Professional process server
NOTE: If you hire a process server, give him or her a photo of your former spouse or partner (if you have one) and a list of times and places when it will be easy to find that person. Look for a process server who is close to where the other party lives or works. Fees are often based on how far the server has to travel.
REMEMBER: You cannot be the server for your own case.
You may bring a witness to court to testify if the person is properly qualified and the information he or she will provide is relevant to the issues. You may also give the court written testimony of a witness that is prepared as a declaration. You may use this form:
- Declaration (Form MC-030)
If you decide to bring a witness, give some thought to what you expect him or her to say, and how that is important to the orders you want the court to make. Remember that the court time is usually very limited, so be sure the information the witness will provide is helpful and relevant.
Prepare, file and serve a witness list
If you intend to call live witnesses at your hearing you must prepare a witness list before the hearing. This list must include the names of all witnesses you intend to call, as well as a brief description of their expected testimony.
Once you have finished this list:
- Make two copies of the list - one for the court and one for the other party in this case. Then take (or mail) the original and two copies to the court to be filed by a court clerk.
- You must serve a copy of this list on the other party.
- Make sure your witnesses know how to find the court and what time to be there. It might be a good idea to give them a copy of the checklist on this website for how to dress and how to behave in court.
NOTE: If you do NOT file and serve a witness list before the hearing, the court may postpone your hearing to a later time. The court could also make temporary orders to be obeyed until the new hearing takes place.
Lawyers, parties, witnesses, jurors, or other people with a disability may confidentially request accommodations from the court.
If you have a disability and would like to request an accommodation, you may fill out a:
- Request for Accommodations by Persons With Disabilities and Response (Form MC-410)
See the instructions for this form.
- You can also make a request for an accommodation by writing a short letter to the court OR
- You can go to the court,to complete and submit the request form.
Requests can be made at any time, although you should try to give the court at least 5 court days’ notice.
If your former spouse or partner did not pay support for a period of time, you may ask the court to make a “determination of the
Also ask the court to set a monthly payment on the amount unpaid that is in addition to the base monthly support amount in the order.
To do this, you will need to go to the courthouse and file a:
On the Request for Order, check box 8 (“Other Relief”) and write in “Determine arrears and set monthly payment of $______ (write in a reasonable amount).”
You will also need to have filled out and attached to the Notice:
- Application to Determine Arrearages (Form FL-490),
- Declaration of Payment History (Form FL-420) and
- Payment History Attachment (Form FL-421) to show the overdue support amounts.
Find local court forms you may need at your county's court website.
After the forms are filed, copies of them will need to be “
If you have a court order for spousal or partner support, you have a right to collect that support through a
Step 1. First get a copy of these 3 court forms and fill them in.
If your former spouse or partner has missed one or more payments, then you may be able to include an additional amount each month to pay off the back support owed by completing the:
Step 2. Attach a copy of your Spousal or Partner Support order to form FL-435.
Step 3. Take the three forms, with a copy of the Spousal or Partner Support order, to the Family Law Facilitator so they can submit your request to the judge. There may be regional differences in who gives your forms to the judge. Please check with your local court.
Step 4. Ask when and where you should pick it up.
Step 5. After the Wage Assignment form (FL-435) has been signed by the judge, make three copies of it.
Step 6. Go to the clerk’s office and
Step 7. Next, get a copy of the form called:
- Request for Hearing Regarding Earnings Assignment (Form FL-450)
Step 8. Have a copy of the signed Earnings Assignment Order for Spousal or Partner Support (form FL-435) AND the Request for Hearing Regarding Earnings Assignment (form FL-450) served on the employer of the person whose pay will be taken. You can have these forms served by mail by another adult who is not involved in the case.
REMEMBER: You cannot serve the papers yourself. Another adult who is not involved in the case must serve the papers for you.
Step 9. Have a copy of the signed Earnings Assignment Order for Spousal or Partner Support (form FL-435) served on the person whose pay will be taken for the spousal or partner support. You can also have these forms served by mail by another adult who is not involved in the case.
Step 10. Ask the person who served the forms for you to fill out “Proof of Service” forms, sign them and give them to you for filing.
For personal service -- The person who served the documents must fill out and sign:
Proof of Personal Service (Form FL-330).
For service by mail -- The person who mailed the documents must fill out and sign:
Proof of Service by Mail (Form FL-335).
Step 11. Take the signed Proof of Service forms, plus one copy of each to the clerk. The clerk will keep the original and stamp the copy “Filed” and return it to you. Keep it in a safe place.
REMEMBER: If you have any questions about filing and serving wage assignments, you can ask your Family Law Facilitator for help.
In general, you cannot fight a wage assignment in court because wage assignments are allowed by law.
However, there are some circumstances in which you can object to the wage assignment issued to your employer.
For instance, if you and your former spouse or partner have an agreement that says there will be no wage assignment, it might be possible to ask the court to review your case.
If you object to the wage assignment and would like a court hearing to present your side of the story, you need to file court form FL-450 (Request for Hearing Regarding Earnings Assignment) within 10 days of receiving your copy of the wage assignment.
- Your employer should have received a Request for Hearing Regarding Earnings Assignment (form FL-450) with the wage assignment so you can ask him or her for the form.
- If your employer did NOT receive the form, you can get a copy at the courthouse or by clicking here, (Form FL-450).
1. Read form FL-450 carefully. Note that the situations where you would use this form are very rare. The judge will only hear the issue of whether or not the wage assignment is valid.
You cannot use this form if you simply do not agree with the amount the court ordered you to pay. If you disagree with your underlying support order, then you
need to file the proper paperwork to modify your spousal or partner support order.
2. Fill in the form if you object to the wage assignment for one of the reasons listed on pages 1 and 2. (Page 3 is an information sheet with instructions to help you understand what is required.)
- Note that at the bottom of page 2, the name and address of your former spouse or partner are required.
- You will also need to give the court clerk one stamped envelope addressed to you, and one stamped envelope addressed to your former spouse or partner, so the clerk can mail a copy of this form to each of you.
You may file your request in person at the clerk’s office or mail it to the clerk. In either event, the clerk must receive it within 10 days after the date you received your copy of the wage assignment.
4. After you file the request, the court clerk will notify you by mail of the date, time and location of the hearing.
The former spouses or partners can make an agreement about the support amount, and put their agreement in writing.
One of the former spouses or partners can ask the court to change the amount of support being paid.
If a person who is receiving spousal or partner support begins to live with another adult, the court may reduce the amount of support if he or she will not need as much support as when living alone.
If a person who is paying spousal or partner support begins to live with another adult, the income of the other adult cannot be considered when deciding on the support amount.
If you lose your job, make less money than you used to, or become disabled and unable to earn an income, you should notify the court immediately by filing a motion to modify your spousal or partner support order.
It is very important that you
If you fill out the proper paperwork for a modification, the court may temporarily or permanently reduce the amount of your future payments. If you wait to modify your motion, you will be unable to reduce any back payments that you owe.
You should request that a court modify the amount of your spousal or partner support if there has been a significant change in:
- your income, or
- your former spouse’s or partner’s income.
NOTE: It is very important to request that the court modify your support amount as soon as possible. If you do not make the request, you will still owe the full amount of support even though your situation has changed.
Also, if you owe that amount but are unable to pay it, you will owe interest (at the rate of 10% per year) on any unpaid balance. This will be in addition to the spousal or partner support amount that you owe.
The court has no power to modify the amount of support until a motion has been filed and served on the other former spouse or partner.
Once you request the court to modify the amount of spousal or partner support, the court will make its decision based upon the current circumstances. This means that the support amount could go either up or down.
If you are not sure whether the change in circumstances will result in an increase or a decrease, you can ask the Family Law Facilitator’s Office in your county to help calculate the estimates for you.
NO. Back spousal or partner support cannot be canceled in a bankruptcy proceeding. Once it is owed, it will always be owed, until paid. You cannot use bankruptcy to get out of having to pay your support obligation.
Your support payment must be paid by the date stated in your court order.
Missed payments ("
If there is a change of circumstance that qualifies you to pay less, you can file a motion with the court to
Why is the amount that I am supposed to pay higher than the monthly spousal or partner support amount that I owe?
There are several reasons why the amount of money you owe each month can be greater than your current monthly spousal or partner support amount.
- You may owe more because you have fallen behind in paying your support. When you fall behind in your spousal or partner support you will not only have to pay your current amount of support but an additional amount to begin to cover what you were unable to pay in the past. You will be charged 10% interest per year on any support that you did not pay when it was due.
- In addition, your employer may charge you one dollar every time that the employer takes money from your paycheck to provide support.
These other costs may be added to the amount that you owe each month.
If you owed the spousal or partner support and it was unpaid, you cannot do anything about the interest. Interest charges are added by law, and the judge cannot stop them.
If you believe you did not owe the support (it was paid or incorrectly calculated), this is a complicated problem. Contact a lawyer or the Family Law Facilitator’s office for help as soon as possible.
If your driver’s license has been suspended due to lack of payment of spousal or partner support you can go to the court and file a form that asks the court to consider giving you back your license:
Notice of Motion for Judicial Review of License Denial (Form FL-670)
If you want the court to address any other issues, such as lowering your monthly payments for spousal or partner support, you will need to file a:
- Notice of Motion (Form FL-301)
- Application for Order and Supporting Declaration (Form FL-300)
- Financial Statement (Simplified) (Form FL-155)
See the instructions for this form.
- Income and Expense Declaration (Form FL-150)
See the instructions for this form.
To help you decide if form FL-150 or form FL-155 is right for you, read an information sheet called "Which Financial Form - FL-150 or FL-155?" (DV-570) in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese .
Find local court forms you may need on your county's court website. The Family Law Facilitator’s Office can help you figure out which forms you need to file and can assist you in filling out the forms.
YES. If you do not pay your spousal or partner support (either currently owed or arrears owed) you can be held in contempt of court and this can result in you being put in jail.
You have a right to say as a defense that you did not have the ability to pay any support.
- However, you cannot make this claim just because you did not have any money - if you had the ability to have money.
- You will have to show that you did not willfully refuse to seek and accept an available job you could have gotten because of your education, experience, and physical ability.
You have the right to be represented by an attorney throughout the court hearing to determine whether you are in contempt. If it is possible that you will be put in jail and you cannot afford an attorney, you should ask the court to appoint an attorney for you free of charge.
If you are supposed to pay spousal or partner support and are sent to jail, you may be able to modify the order based upon your current inability to pay due to your lack of income.
You should file papers with the court immediately asking for a modification of your support obligation.
NOTE: If you don’t get a court order modifying your support amount, you will not be able to go back later and request it, even if you can prove you were in jail.
To get assistance, you may write to the Family Law Facilitator in the county where your case is filed.
I was served with support papers but I ignored them because I was in prison. Now I am out and I owe a lot of money. What can I do?
- You may not be able to cancel (or "set aside") a judgment if you were served correctly. There may be some exceptions, but it is a complicated problem – especially if the judgment is more than 6 (six) months old.
- Contact the Family Law Facilitator’s Office or a lawyer for help as soon as possible. Remember: you must act as soon as you find out about the default or judgment!
- If you are currently incarcerated, you can write to the Facilitator’s Office and ask them for assistance. Include as much information about your case as you have, such as your name, your former spouse or partner’s name, and your court docket (case) number.
If you can't get the judgment set aside, there are other things you may be able to do. (Ask the Family Law Facilitator for help.)
- You can file a motion asking the court to change the support based on how much money you make now.
- You can also ask the court to set a monthly payment so you can repay what you owe for past support (called "arrearage") in installments.
NOTE: The spousal or partner support order will stay in effect even if you have no income -- or less income -- unless you ask the court to change the order.
- The court can only change a support amount for future payments, starting from the day you file papers asking for the change. The court will not be able to lower past support amounts.
- Any back support (arrearage) will include interest, which is currently 10% per year. This can add up to a lot of money.