Legal Separation versus Divorce: What’s the difference & why does it matter

The term “legal separation” or “separation” mean two things in family/divorce law, and they can be confusing.

First, your “date of separation” applies to everyone getting divorced. After your date of separation, which is the date you made the decision to separate and live forever apart, AND you physically separated, you are ‘separated’ from your spouse, and – here’s the important part – everything you acquire, including earnings, property and debt, is your separate property and not subject to equal division with your spouse.  Don’t overthink this date. Generally it’s the day you made the final decision to divorce.

Second, there is a box on the Petition for you to mark “Legal Separation” or “Dissolution” (divorce). Almost everyone marks Dissolution” here because they want a divorce.  A Legal Separation is the same as a divorce in that you will still determine child custody, visitation and support, property division, and spousal support, but at the end of the process, you and your spouse will be legally married. This means that you may not marry someone else.  When you get a dissolution, you are not married at the end of the process.

Legal Separations are rare, but they happen.  There are a couple reasons why someone may check the “Legal Separation” box on the Petition.

The first is due to residency. To file for divorce in California, you have to be a resident of California for the six months immediately prior to the filing, as well as a resident of the county you are filing in for the three months immediately prior to the filing. There are no such requirements for a Legal Separation, so some will file that way to get the process started, then amend the Petition for divorce once the residency requirements have been met.

The second is for religious reasons, when spouses do not wish to ‘divorce.’ It must be noted, however, that one spouse cannot force the other to remain married. This is not permitted under California law. If one spouse, therefore, files for Legal Separation, and the other responds by filing for dissolution of marriage, then the court will amend the Petition to dissolution. A Legal Separation is only available if both parties agree to it.

The final most common reason for filing for Legal Separation is for health care reasons, most frequently by older couples. I had a case where the parties had been married for more than 40 years, and the wife was covered under the husband’s health insurance. She would not be able to obtain health insurance on her own except at exorbitant cost. Because both parties were elderly, they determined that they would not wish to marry again, and decided to go with the Legal Separation to protect the wife’s health insurance.

Does your California divorce attorney knows estate planning? How about your California estate planning attorney? Make sure they know family law, too

There is a great deal of overlap between estate planning and family law.  So much so that, if you’re seeking a lawyer in either area, you should make sure you have one with experience in the other area of law.

Take your divorce lawyer.  Why would knowledge of estate planning be important?  Well, for starters, your divorce is going to end at some point.  And because divorces often take much longer than we’d like, we are often exhausted after they’re done, and have no desire to do any other kind of planning or work on the whole divorce issue.  But once the divorce is done, this is when the really critical aspects of your financial life and future come into play.  You need to change your beneficiaries on your retirements and life insurance.  You need to change and update your will and estate plan, your powers of attorney, and the guardians for your children.  A divorce lawyer without estate planning experience is not necessarily going to make sure you’re properly advised on these issues.

Conversely, let’s look at your estate planning attorney.  First, in blended families (where one or both spouses have children from a prior relationship), there are specific estate planning issues that overlap with family law.  In addition, it’s important to know whether either of the spouses has separate property.  Separate property is property that either spouse owned prior to the marriage.  If either has separate property, then putting the property into the trust without a separate property agreement transforms the property into community property….and this could make the owner spouse quite upset should the couple eventually decide to divorce.

These are just a few of the small issues that overlap, and there are many more.  So many that it would be detrimental to you and your family – not to mention your financial future – to consult with an attorney who lacks knowledge and experience in one of these areas.

 

Divorce hearing coming up? Tips to make it more successful and less nerve-wracking

A divorce hearing, especially your first one, can be cause for panic and extreme nerves.  After being a part of hundreds of them, I’ve learned a few tricks to help you get through it more smoothly:

1. Get there early to allow yourself to get lost (and find it), park, get the layout of the place, and to have time to get settled and take a deep breath.
2. Read the signs posted in and around the courtroom, as these will give you a lot of information about what is going to happen and the specific court’s procedures. Determine which notes apply to you and act accordingly.
3. Take a deep breath and try to relax. You may be waiting a long time.
4. You will probably have the check in and let the court know you are present. Often you check in and give your name (and sometimes case number) to the bailiff or the courtroom clerk.  Signs should make this clear.
5. Most counties have a rule regarding a “meet and confer” prior to being heard by the judge. This is a requirement that you at least try to talk to your opponent to work out your differences before the judge will hear your dispute. DO NOT avoid this if it is a county rule in your county, as it will anger the judge that you ignored the rule – and do it even if there is no rule. Making the judge mad is a big no-no in my book.
6. When your case is called, announce your name and approach the tables in front of the judge. You’ll get an opportunity to present your side of the argument, and it’s helpful if you have notes responding to what your opponent is going to say. You know what your opponent is going to say because you read his or her paperwork and also talked to him or her immediately prior to the hearing.
7. Don’t make the judge mad. If he or she cautions you because you have done or said something inappropriate, be sure NOT to repeat your error. One thing that makes most judges mad: interrupting. If you have something to say, find the right time to say it rather than interrupting your opponent or the judge.
8. Once the judge has heard enough, she or he will say so and announce the order. THIS IS WHAT YOU CAME FOR! Take detailed notes because you will need to create a written order from the judge’s words.
9. Before you leave, ask the court for the “Minute Order,” which is the court’s informal notes of the results of the hearing. You can use this to prepare the order. Also, find out which party is preparing the order. Whoever brought the motion generally does this.
10. Thank the judge as you leave, whether you won or lost. Judges work hard and deserve your thanks for taking their time to help you. You may not like their decision, but thank them anyway.

Divorce co-parenting: tips to reduce the craziness

The most important tip to highlight is a critical concept for ALL divorced and divorcing parents:  Do not use your child as a messenger.  In general, involving your child in your divorce or in your relationship with your ex in any way is severely damaging to the child.  Many courts even say that giving your child a note to give to your ex is a no no.  I mean, really, in today’s world, just send an email!  In addition, email provides you with a record so the other parent can’t say, “I never got it.”

Another issue that comes up is the activities, homework, excursions, practices, and myriad of other things that parents want and need to know about a child’s school.  Whn you have one parent who is “primary,” sometimes that can mean that the other parent gets left out of the loop.  I mean, if you only see your child every other weekend, then it can be tough to keep up on homework and teachers.  Especially since you may be focused on maximizing the time and not focusing on things like homework.

So we try to put in place provisions to ensure that both parents are actively involved with the child’s school.  This can place a burden on the ‘primary’ parent, but it’s a burden that’s in the best interests of the child and well worth the effort.

We used to suggest creating a notebook – just a spiral bound notebook that passed back and forth between the houses – that kept track of homework, permission slips, activities, etc.  I still think it’s a good idea, but perhaps a quick email is better – that way we avoid the child as a messenger.  One way to systemize this is to send a weekly email – it doesn’t have to be long or overly wordy – but it should include any and all information the parent writing it would want to know about the child’s school (homework, notices, upcoming events, school pictures, field trips, expenses) if the shoe were on the other foot.  It can be a simple list.

To avoid drama and arguments, you can exchange your child at school.  First, exchanging at school (after school, for example) instead of at the other parent’s house, can be a great way to avoid conflict between the parents.  This takes away all interaction at the exchange, so there’s no chance for fighting.  Second, there is no inconvenience to one party if someone is late or the schedule changes, since only one parent is involved and the focus is on retrieving the child.  Third, if you have trouble with fights at school activities, then there is a solution:  If you have a child with activities, and you and your ex can’t be in the same football-field-sized area together without causing a scene, here are some suggestions:

  1. If the practice or game is during your custodial time, you can attend.  If not, you need to avoid it.  This is not always possible, so…
  2. Generally activities have practices and games/events.  Either pick days (Mom can attend events – whatever they are – on Wednesdays, and Father on Tuesdays) or you can alternate events (Mom can go to the game on 9/10, but Dad can go on 9/17).  Obviously, this takes some planning, but isn’t it worth it if it (a) keeps your child out of your arguments, and (b) keeps both parents involved in your child’s activities?
  3. Alternate activities.  Many children are involved in a number of activities, and sometimes one parent gravitates toward one, while another parent gravitates toward another.  Mom may be an assistant soccer coach, so she get to attend all those functions, while Dad is keen on photography, so he spends time working on that and attending those shows and events.

The important thing to remember is to keep your child away from the conflict and to be present at their activities.  Sometimes it’s just the way it is, when parents can’t get along, but the parents have to acknowledge this and work to find a way around it that doesn’t hurt their children.  If you keep your eye on what’s important – the health and well-being of your child, then you’ll be able to find a solution to any problem.

 

Unmarried with children? What happens to your child when your relationship ends? The California paternity case

A court case for a couple who is not married but has children is called a paternity, or UPA case.  UPA stands for the Uniform Parentage Act, which is the law that governs these kinds of cases. Paternity cases are generally the way you formally and legally establish the parents of a child. Generally the father is the one thought of in these cases, but in a UPA case, both mother and father are determined. Either parent may bring a paternity case, and upon the establishment of parentage, both rights and responsibilities attach.

In a paternity case, both responsibilities and privileges of parenting are granted/ordered.  Once it is determined that you are a parent of a child, you are required to support that child financially by working. You are also entitled to parenting time (visitation) with the child, subject to the best interests of that child (for example, you are entitled to parenting time unless the time would endanger the child’s welfare, such as if you are ingesting illegal substances at the time). This responsibility lasts, legally in California, until that child is 18 and graduated from high school, to a maximum age of 19.

The court’s jurisdiction over a child lasts until age 18 for custody and visitation purposes. At age 18, the court can no longer order a child to visit with either parent because that child is now an adult and not subject to the jurisdiction of the court. For purposes of child support, however, the obligation lasts until your child graduates from high school, up to the age of 19. So if your child turns 18 in January, then graduates in June of the same year, then you pay support until June. If your child graduates in June and turns 18 in October a couple months later, then the support can last into college. If you have a child who turns 19 in April before graduating in June, then support will last until your child’s birthday in April. Perhaps that was a longer explanation than necessary, but at least now you get it (hopefully!).

A UPA case cannot handle, however, issues around your relationship that do not have to do with the child. For example, a UPA case can resolve issues surrounding pregnancy and birth expenses, but cannot resolve issues, for example, around the return of property or disposing of joint assets (such as a car or house). The court will only get into that with married couples. If you have to go to court on issues of property division with someone to whom you are not married, then you have to go to small claims court. Obviously, too, there is no spousal support in a UPA case.

What is a dissolution and why can’t California just call it a divorce?

At some point in the 1970s or 1980s, California decided that the word “divorce” was too casual, so it switched to the term “dissolution” for the breakup of a marriage.  Regardless of what you call it, however, every dissolution has several common issues.  Not every divorce is identical, of course, and your case may not include some of these issues (for example, if you do not have children), but many do.

In every divorce (or dissolution) case, the court has a universe of issues it may resolve. The issues are child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, property and debt division, attorney fees, and status. Here is an overview of each:

There are two aspects of the non-financial issues with your child/ren: custody and visitation (or parenting time). There is physical and legal custody, and you can have joint custody or sole custody (for one parent). Parenting plans vary like personalities. Some parents share parenting time equally and fluidly with few specifics written down. Some parents have to have every detail recorded in excruciating detail. There are some “standard” parenting plans, but by no means are they uniform.

Child and spousal support are also issues in a divorce case. Support is calculated using a software program adopted by the State of California. You can find it for free here: Support Calculations. Permanent, or long-term, spousal support is calculated using a variety of qualitative factors not necessarily related to the software, however.

The court will also divide all property and debt you and your spouse acquired during your marriage. This includes any real property, or homes, as well as personal property, vehicles, bank and stock accounts, 401Ks and pension/retirement accounts, and any and all debt. California law provides for EQUAL division of all property and debt incurred during the marriage.

The court can and will also resolve the issue of attorney fees, particularly if the incomes of the spouses are very different. If one spouse makes the majority of the money in the household, the court will likely order that spouse to pay the majority of the attorney fees.

Finally, there is the issue of your status. Your status is whether you are divorced or single. You can separate, or bifurcate, the issue of your status and become divorced if you feel your case is taking too long. Divorce cases can last several years. Most often, your status is dissolved, making you a single person, at the resolution of your case. The earliest this can happen is six months and one day from the time the Petition was served on the Respondent.

Top California divorce mistakes to avoid

Everyone these days is looking for ways to keep costs down, and divorcing couples are no exception.  We see all over the place services offering a divorce for $399, or online ads offering similar low prices for divorces.  These services are generally documents preparers.  Document preparers generally have some experience in filling out the forms necessary for a divorce, but they are not lawyers, do not and have not gone to court, and so they do not know the ramifications for improperly filling out your forms.  They could be depriving you of a benefit that you need, but that you don’t even know about!  Too many times I have had clients come into my office, needing me to clean up a mess a document preparer created, costing them much more money than if they had come to me in the first place.  Use a document preparer at your own risk.  Better yet, don’t use one at all.  Spend a few dollars more at the outset to make sure you get the professional, knowledgeable help you need.

In addition, you must be very careful to complete your forms properly.  In divorce law, there are a great number of forms and disclosures you need to do, such as income, expenses, assets and debts.  You sign these forms under penalty of perjury, so they need to be accurate and complete.  But in addition to these forms, there are other forms that need to be filled out to allow you to let the court and other side know what you want, actually get what you want when it becomes time, have your documents accepted by the court, and have your case completed properly.  While most are straightforward, some have tricky elements that may require a professional to ensure all of your rights are protected.  Do it right the first time to save yourself immense hassle later.