How to get what you want out of divorce: Strategies, tips and tricks to ensure success at every stage

I’ve created a FREE series on California divorce.  This Series is for individuals who want to learn not just how to survive the process with their money and sanity, but also want to succeed and get what they want in their divorce. You will receive keys to divorce from every aspect, from beginning the process to post-divorce considerations.  CLICK HERE to receive an email every day for seven days on the various topics on divorce in California plus instant access to our FREE 7-page Report, “Things they don’t tell you about divorce in California (and everywhere else!)”.

Recent readers of our Series have said:

“I liked how you linked the forms to the topic, such as the income and expense form.”
“I liked many aspects of the course. It was good to learn about negotiation, which is very helpful to know about.”
“I thought it was very helpful, informative, much more understanding and powerful knowledge before getting divorce.”
“Your information was so clear and answered many of my questions—-thank you.”
“Concise, fast moving for a seven day course.”

CLICK HERE for more information and details about the topics for each day.

Secrets of a divorce attorney: Why a free consultation isn’t worth the money

I came across an article recently that purported to give advice on how to select a divorce attorney.  One of the bits of advice was that most “reputable” attorneys will offer a free consultation.  I was stunned to hear this, as I think the precise opposite!  The free consultation from the divorce attorney is a loss leader, which means that it’s free because the attorney is looking for the potential client to pay the big bucks at the end of the consultation. In addition, the attorney doesn’t offer anything of value to the potential client during the free consultation.

Remember, you get what you pay for!

Many attorneys offer a free or reduced-cost consultation and the appointment goes like this: the potential client arrives and fills out some paperwork, finishing after about 10-15 minutes.  Then s/he waits another 5-10 minutes, so the actual appointment starts at least 15 minutes into the alloted “hour.”  The attorney, naturally, want to know what’s going on, so the potential client spends at least 20-30 minutes – often this is closer to 45 minutes – telling their “story” to the attorney.  So, at this point, it’s been 45 minutes to an hour, and the attorney has yet to *do* anything but sit and listen.  At the end of the consultation, the attorney says, well, yes. I can help you with that.  And the retainer will be $10,000.  Or $5,000.  Or $20,000.  So the potential client has paid nothing to get nothing but a very high retainer quote, and the client has (unless s/he has the money) wasted an hour or so of time.

Is that worth it?  Are these the practices of a “reputable” attorney?

A paid consultation can be more worthwhile, as they tend to be a little longer and involve more attorney advice and counsel.  Often, the intake sheet is sent in advance, and the “hour” spent is really an hour. In my office, I ask for and take as much information and documents – as well as your questions – as I can in advance, then when we meet, we can ‘hit the ground running’ since I already know what’s going on and what your most pressing questions are. I spent the FULL hour giving you real advice that you can use now. In our interaction, I am also able to get a feel for you, what you may need & how you can benefit from what I have to offer. This allows me to give you various options (and fees!) for working with me based on your unique situation.

Yes, the consultation costs, but you get what you pay for.

Which would you choose?

Changing child custody and visitation after the divorce is final

So, you got divorced a year ago…or two or five or ten years ago, and you want to make a change to your custody plan. Called a “post-Judgment modification,” it frequently comes up, especially when custody arrangements were made when children were little…and now they’ve grown. Extra-curricular activities, changes in residence or school, and gradual agreed-upon modifications in the custodial plan can cause problems when there’s a disagreement down the road. Or, common too is when the custodial plan just isn’t working.

I frequently get questions about problems with child custody and visitation after a couple has gotten a divorce, or completed their paternity suit and gotten a Judgment. One parent is constantly late or absent, one parent keeps changing the parenting plan, or one parent has a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and the new significant other is causing problems, or there is some problem with the child that one parent thinks is the other parent’s fault.

The answer is that there is a solution to these issues. Once your divorce is completed, or you have a Judgment, any of your orders can be modified upon a showing of a “change in circumstances.” A change in circumstances is some change from the time of your divorce/Judgment that has caused the problem. It could be a work schedule change, a new partner in your ex’s life, a change in residence, a change in the child’s school performance or behavior, or just a change in the situation. Most courts are pretty lenient when it comes to what kind of change is required.

But you do have to file a motion with the court if you can’t get an agreement with your ex about the change. I always recommend starting the easy way, which is sending a letter or email about the change you want, why you want it, and what steps you will take if the ex doesn’t agree. The steps you take may include going back to court, and you have to make that decision before you put it in writing.

If you have been through a divorce, you probably know how tough the court system can be on your wallet, your nerves, and your relationship with your ex, so think hard about whether you want to open up that can of worms. A qualified attorney can help you to assess the pros and cons of each option, and which would be the best for you and your family. If the situation isn’t working, get the advice you need to remedy the situation.

Uncontested divorce (part 2): Mediation when both agree

Another way in which an uncontested divorce comes my way is in the context of a couple who are fairly amicable and would like to work together to complete their divorce. Often, they either agree on everything (how to divide assets, on support, and on child issues) or they have one or two relatively minor issues that they’d like help with.  Often, too, the couple is concerned about (1) completing the process correctly, (2) not having time on their own – with family, work, and other personal concerns – to figure out how best to proceed and fill out all of the documents, (3) making sure nothing is left out because of their lack of knowledge of the “ins and outs” of California divorce, and (4) having someone to reach out to for questions and concerns as the process progresses.

Mediation is the way to go in these circumstances. Mediation is where an attorney (or non-attorney, though I generally recommend working with an attorney-mediator) to help you to come to a resolution of your divorce case. It’s significantly less expensive than litigation and drastically reduces the amount of contention and conflict in the process. Essentially you are working together to come to an agreeable solution. Instead of forcing a stranger – a judge – to make decisions for you, your children, your future and your finances, YOU control the process. It’s much quicker, too, than the traditional divorce process.

If you and your spouse get along reasonably well & just want to get your divorce completed as quickly, painlessly, and with the least expense, consider mediation.

Uncontested divorce (part 1): when your spouse won’t participate

On occasion I talk to someone who tells me that while they want a divorce, their spouse refuses to talk about it and says they won’t participate or sign anything.  Understandably, the spouse who wants the divorce finds this distressing.  But this is nothing to be stressed about, and here’s why:

First, once you file for divorce, your spouse is likely to at least seek out some kind of advice from someone, whether it’s looking around online, buying a book, talking to a family member, or talking to a lawyer.  When faced with an unknown, most individuals will act in self-preservation.  Since the only advice to give to someone who says they don’t want to participate in their divorce is DON’T DO THAT, those that get advice often find their way to action one way or another.

Second, there is a process for a default divorce, which is what it is called when one party does not file any documents (unlike “uncontested,” which doesn’t really mean anything anymore because in California, and in most states, you can’t “contest” a divorce – though you can contest the terms of the divorce!).  Once you file the Petition and serve it on your spouse, your spouse has 30 days (again, in California.  Your state may vary in its rules) to respond by filing a Response to the Petition.  If that Response is not filed, then the Petitioner spouse can file for default.  This is the process whereby the Petitioner files all of the income, expense, assets and debt information with the court and gets to determine who will get what, including child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and asset and debt division.  It still must be equitable (or roughly equal), but what you consider equal and what your spouse considers equal may be radically different concepts.  So long as the proposed Judgment by the Petitioner is not too skewer in one party’s favor, the Judgment gets filed and is an order of the court.

It’s simple in theory but can be complicated to complete, especially since the forms can be a pain to fill out.  But the fact that one spouse can make all the decisions regarding the divorce generally prompts the other spouse to action.  Consider the possibility of child and spousal support being determined without your input or participation at all, or child custody and visitation.  Most spouses tend to act when faced with the actual divorce paperwork, even if they say they don’t want any part of it.

Estate planning: Why your living trust isn’t enough

The centerpiece of any good estate plan is your living trust.  This is the document that allows your estate to pass without going through probate, paying 8-10% of your gross estate in fees and expenses, and forcing your family through 2-3 (or 5-6) years of court appearances, lawyers and judges making decisions about your property.  Proper estate planning can also help you to minimize or eliminate estate tax.  Having no estate plan or having just a will won’t do this.

But proper estate planning includes other consideration and critical documents as well, and should not be overlooked in your planning.

  1. FUNDING your trust. All of your assets – yes, all of them – should be titled in the name of your trust. Hopefully, your estate planning attorney transferred your real property (house) into the trust, but generally, you are responsible for transferring the rest of your assets, such as bank accounts, stocks, and life insurance.
  2. Pour-Over will.  You still need a will, even if you have a living trust, because anything that is not in your trust will need to go into probate.  There are a couple important things to know about your pour-over will.  First, it includes your nomination of guardian, so this in itself is a reason why it’s so important.  Second, while you will be funding your trust with all of your property (and thus will not likely need a will), things can happen where you are not able to put your property in your trust, such as when you are the subject of a wrongful death suit or if you don’t have possession yet of the property before you pass away.  Third and finally, the will is called a “pour-over” because pours over anything probated into your living trust.
  3. Powers of attorney.  You need powers of attorney, one for your property/assets and one for health care. Powers of attorney go into effect when you are still alive but you are incapacitated due to illness or accident.  These determine who will be making medical and care decisions on your behalf (and paying your bills) when you are unable.  These are key because, if you wait until you are already incapacitated to get one, then your family must go through the court process of getting a conservatorship, which is lengthy and expensive.
  4. Assignment/Distribution of Personal Property.  These documents first put all of your personal property (your furniture, cars, pets and other personal belongings) into your trust, and then list how they will be distributed upon your death.  These are important because often the biggest arguments after you are gone are about the smallest things, like the jewelry and china.  Don’t leave your family fighting because you didn’t leave instruction.
  5. Certificate of Trust.  This is the four-page summary of your trust that you will use to transfer your property into your trust.  Instead of having to take the whole binder, or even the whole 30-page trust document into the bank – and share the detail of the contents – you use the four-page summary that maintains your privacy and makes it much easier to copy and share with your account holders.

In addition to these documents, I consider it part of my job to help you ensure that ALL of your affairs are in order.  This includes your pre-need funeral arrangements, ensuring you have enough life insurance, that you have long-term care insurance, and are doing what you need to do now to have the retirement that you want.  These additional services are not provided by me and I don’t get anything for referring someone to you.  But I have spent lots of time getting to know the best professionals in each of their respective businesses, because I want to refer you to only the best to be able to take care of all of your needs.

If your estate planning professional is not providing all of these services – and more (follow up, ongoing communications, updates on law, etc.) – then perhaps you should reconsider who you are talking to, or at least ask some questions.  Your family is worth it.

Things you don’t know about California divorce (and need to know!)

There are so many aspects of California divorce that go beyond the law and process. Here are a few of the key things you probably don’t know about divorce:

  1. It’s going to take a LOT longer and cost a LOT more than you ever imagined.  No, longer than that….and even longer than that.  Whatever you’ve imagined, add at least 50% more time and money.  And this isn’t just attorney fees money, it’s lost wages money (those pesky court appearances), increased debt money, and new expenses money (new blender, new apartment).
  2. Attorneys – even your attorney – can seem like s/he isn’t on your side.  Sometimes this is good, as when you’re hearing the reality of divorce and your attorney is not just telling you what you want to hear (so you’ll be disappointed later), but sometimes it’s bad, as when your attorney is mean or nasty to you.
  3. Your attorney may not be telling you ways to save money on your divorce.  This can vary from attorney to attorney, and it can range from benign oversight to outright malpractice.  You have to decide what’s going to work for you, but don’t fail to either get a second opinion or learn at least some law and procedure so you know what questions to ask.  The more you fight, the more the lawyers get.
  4. The system is not fair.  It’s not designed to make you feel better or vindicated or right.  It’s flawed, and the people involved are flawed, as people are.  “Making the judge see your side” is not going to get you your way.  What will get you your way is having the facts on your side.
  5. Your children will act out, misbehave, develop illnesses they never had, and otherwise have a really hard time with the divorce.  Instead of blaming your ex-spouse, work with him/her to help your children.  You will save them in the short AND long run.
  6. Your lawyer is not going to be offended if you fire him/her and get another lawyer.  Most lawyers welcome the reduction in caseload and “starting over” with a new lawyer is not hard at all.
  7. Much like #4 above, the legal system is not going to help you at all with the emotional aspects of the divorce.  Get a therapist, as soon as you can.  Get over it, in your own way and your own time, and not with lawyers, courts and hearings. Don’t discount the emotions of divorce. They can be the toughest thing to overcome.
  8. The more you learn/know, the better off you’ll be, regardless of how complicated or contentious your case is, the amount of lawyers’ fees (if any), and how long the process takes.

Don’t overlook these important estate planning concerns in divorce

When you get a divorce in California (and everywhere else!), there are important estate planning considerations to take into account.  In fact, these are so critical that you could end up leaving your estate to your ex spouse (ouch!), having your ex make important medical decisions for you, or – if you act hastily and without the proper information – you could get into trouble with the court system.

During Divorce:  First, when you file for divorce in California, regardless of whether it’s Alameda County, Contra Costa County, or any other county, once the other party is served, both of you become restrained from doing certain things.  One of these restraining order involves your will or trust, and prohibits you from making any changes to your will or trust once you’ve filed for divorce and served the other party.  One of the others prohibits either of you from changing or cancelling any insurance, such as life, health, auto/property, etc., or changing the beneficiaries on any insurance or other account where a beneficiary is named.  Do not make the mistake of cancelling your ex’s health insurance or changing your will after you have filed for divorce!

You may make these changes with permission from the other party or with a court order, and you may want to seek this.  Particularly if you have separate property, the last thing you want is for your ex to get it all if something happens to you. You may also want to get permission to change the beneficiary of your life insurance into a trust for your children, but you need permission for both of these actions.

One of the changes that you should make as soon as you can, and there is no court prohibition on this, is your powers of attorney.  For both health and finances, you want to make sure you designate someone other than your ex who will make decisions for you and manage your affairs should you become incapacitated.  If you’re lying in a hospital bed unconscious, do you really want your ex deciding whether to get surgery or wait to see if the medication improves your condition?

After Divorce:  Once your divorce is final, you want to make sure you change your will or trust, your powers of attorney (if you’ve not done so already), the beneficiaries on your life insurance, retirement and other accounts, and make sure you have enough life insurance for your children and long-term care insurance to care for yourself as you get older.

Need more help?  Click here for our FREE Divorce e-Course.

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