Court filing fees in California are not always required. The most common reason that a person filing at the Superior Courts in California would not have to pay a fee would be if they prepare and file a current fee waiver (FW-001) and it is granted and the court Judge signs or stamps an Order on Fee Waiver (FW-003).
While the Superior Courts in California have not increased their filing fees in the last few years, around 2011-2012 there were as many as 3 filing fee increases that brought the most common filing fees for most court filings to $435 in 56 of California’s Counties and $450 in Riverside and San Francisco Counties. For those of us in the industry we are used to seeing incremental increases to court filing fees every so often, but for those who have never interacted with the court system or had to file a case, $435.00 can seem like a lot for what appears to be a clerk spending a few minutes stamping some documents.
The reality is that those filing fees actually fund most of the Superior Courts operations. Larger counties such as San Bernardino, San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside and more can have up to 15 separate court locations handling all types of different cases. Each court can have dozens to hundreds of court staff moving cases along. So aside from payroll, overhead such as utilities, and more, you can quickly see that the cost to keep the lights on at the court can be high.
The good news about the first filing fee, often referred to as a “First Appearance Fee”, is that in most cases it could be the only fee you pay to process your case start to finish. An example would be a divorce with an agreement of both parties. The court will initiate the case with the filing fee, and if both parties can sign an agreement, the Judge will sign the final divorce judgment making orders all for the single fee. Some cases that could require additional fees would be a divorce case that is contested and requires hearings and or mediations. Aside from the filing fee, the court can also charge a hearing and court reporter and even mediation fees for each and every appearance needed in a courtroom.
As mentioned above, a fee waiver can help those who qualify to avoid having to pay any fees at all in their case. When filing a petition or first filing on a case the court will either require a filing fee, or a fee waiver request. Petitioners, or their document preparation service, can prepare the fee waiver documents in the Petitioner thinks that they qualify.
When the fee waiver is filed, the court staff will do one of two things. The first option is the court clerk could either approve or deny on the spot. This will depend on the information on the form provided. The second possibility is they may need to submit the fee waiver for further review. This could be because the information was unclear, or that the qualifying factors were too close to decide on the spot. In situations like this the clerks may forward to the Judge for a final decision. After determination the court will mail their decision back to the petitioner. If the fee waiver was granted no further action required, but if the court denies it, commonly the filing fee must be paid within 10 days to keep the case open.
For cases where third party costs were incurred it is important to pay the filing fee with the court to avoid the case dismissal. Fees for process serving, newspaper publications and more are typically linked to case numbers, so if a case is dismissed, all those fees have to be paid again on a new case.
If you’re about to initiate a case in California, look at the qualifying factors for a fee waiver. You may be eligible and complete the fee waiver process could save you hundreds of dollars.