What happens with your child when your unmarried 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.

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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.

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Dispelling the fairy tale: How kids benefit from parents who don’t “stay together for the kids”

This morning I posted an article from the Huffington Post about celebrities that made the decision to divorce when they knew they were pregnant.  I am of the opinion that children can sense and feel tension and hostility in the family, even if it’s a cool hostility.  And I am not alone: at the family law update classes I attend, research backs me up.  Children from intact happy households fare the best, but those in intact unhappy households fare worse than those in homes with divorced parents.  But I still often hear from clients and friends that they want to stay together until the children are in college, or at least until they are “old enough to handle it.”

But what is this teaching out children?  We are teaching them to put others before our own happiness, and indeed, that our own happiness does not matter.  In addition, we are over-emphasizing the importance of marriage and the “fairy tale” of a lasting relationship.  As was so eloquently put by another author on the Huffington Post, we teach our children, by staying together past our relationship’s due date, that being married and unhappy is more valuable than being alone and happy.

Is that really the message we want to send?

Don’t make your California divorce worse than it already is: avoid these all-too-common mistakes

I’ve talked before about how divorce is nearly always much more expensive and time-consuming than you ever expect it to be – frequently many times more – and given tips on how to not only reduce this time and expense, but how to reduce the stress and toll the divorce process has on you and your children.  Particularly in California divorce, and divorce in the Bay Area, courts are overcrowded and lawyers expensive, so this problem is exacerbated.

There are things you can do to ease the process – for example, hiring an experienced Family Law Coach – but there are also things you can do in your relationship with your ex that will make the process go more smoothly.  The marriage may be over, and even perhaps the friendship and trust that certainly existed at some point, but if you have children, there is still going to be a relationship of some sort, and what you say and do – how you conduct yourself – will have a large bearing on what the post-divorce relationship looks like.  Even if you don’t have children with your ex, you still have to maintain a relationship to get through the divorce process.  Here are some tips to help you through:

  1. Divorce is hard.  It’s hard on both of you.  Focusing on the reasons for the divorce or bringing up old arguments will do nothing but make it all worse.  The marriage is over, don’t dwell on these things.  If you have issues – anger, sadness, resentment – then work on them with a qualified therapist.  Don’t make it worse on you, your ex and your children by hanging on to issues that no longer matter.  One qualifier: if the issues you’re focused on involve concerns about your children (substance abuse, violence, neglect, for example), then these are relevant to the divorce case.  Never listening to you, not picking up socks, and that pesky affair are not generally going to be issues that move your case along.
  2. Make sure you know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.  Threatening to “take custody” or to quit your job to avoid child support or bad-mouthing your ex’s lawyer do nothing but make the emotions in your case escalate.  Yes, we all can say things we don’t mean when we’re angry.  All the more reason to think before speaking to your ex.  This is a great article about the nasty things spouses say to each other in a divorce – and why they’re empty threats.
  3. This is an issue I’ve talked about before – as soon as you possibly can, start thinking of the divorce in business-like terms.  Once you decide to divorce, the court and legal process essentially strips all emotion out of the equation and gets to the business of dividing assets, determining appropriate support, and working out the child custody and child visitation schedule.  Try to look at the divorce as a business transaction, because that’s what the court is doing.  It’s the break-up of a family unit, so each side gets half of what’s in the family.  Removing your emotions in the court process (and keeping them reserved for therapy, for example) will help to move the process along because you will not be delaying the process on emotional grounds.
  4. One last tip for those working with legal professionals: refuse to work or stop working with someone who is making the process worse.  Unfortunately for you, lawyers benefit financially when cases take longer and are more acrimonious.  If your lawyer tells you to stop talking to your ex (saying all communication has to be through the lawyers) or discourages you from making a reasonable settlement in favor of an expensive trial, find someone else to work with.  You’ll all be better served in the long run.

Or, I suppose if you have endless funds, time and anger, you can do all of the above, fight for years, and make a few lawyers rich.  It happens, all too often.  Remember, you get to choose how your divorce proceeds.  Which will you choose?

So, your spouse has hired a lawyer in your California divorce. What do you do? How to negotiate with OPC (opposing counsel)

One of the most terrifying things you can experience in a divorce is coming into court, expecting the hearing to be between you and your spouse, and finding out that your spouse has hired an attorney.  It can be scary.  Lawyers vary, too, in how they deal with unrepresented litigants.  I am always polite but firm.  I know one attorney who is outright nasty, from calling the other party names to threatening them to yelling at them.  You can’t always expect that an attorney is going to be civil…or even professional, unfortunately.

So, what do you do?  First, if you find yourself in the situation, and you want to or think you can hire an attorney, ask the judge at your hearing to continue (postpone) the hearing so you don’ t have to go forward and get steamrolled by the attorney.  Then get thee some legal advice and/or a lawyer, ASAP!  Generally judges will allow unrepresented parties a break if blindsided by an attorney at a hearing.

Second, if you get an attorney or other help or not, make sure you learn as much as you can about your case and the law.  The more you know, the better decisions you’ll make and quite possibly, the less you’ll pay for your attorney.  Nolo Press has some great books.   Third, remember that the attorney is getting paid to do a job, and is also a person as well as an attorney.  If the attorney is rude or says things you don’t like, it’s not because they have it out for you.  They’re doing their job.  They also may be a fantastic attorney, or they may not be so knowledgeable or experienced.  They may be having a bad day.  They may hate their client.  You just don’t know what’s going on in their head, but if you treat them like you would treat your ex (react emotionally, take offense to everything, or reject everything they say simply because they’re saying it), it’s not going to be productive.

Fourth, remember to keep your eye on the ball (and the bill!).  Don’t spend $1,000 on attorney fees over a $500 stereo.  If the other attorney has a reasonable proposal, don’t refuse to agree to it out of mistrust. I’ve had many clients insist that I draft settlement documents because they didn’t trust the other side.  In certain cases, this is appropriate since the other side might be sneaky. But in many cases, this just isn’t true and by having your own attorney prepare documents, you’re just upping the bill for yourself.

Finally, try to keep it together.  If you tend to be overly emotional, see a therapist.  Lawyers won’t help with this at all.  As soon as you can and as much as you can, try to view the divorce as a business relationship breaking apart.  This is the way the court sees it, so the sooner you get on board, the better.  This may see impossible, but it can and should be done as it will be better for everyone.

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A summer parenting plan: why the summer schedules can be more difficult than the holiday schedule

Aaaaah, summer.  It may seem far away now, but if you need to make a change, the time to start working on it is now.  The California family law court system works very slowly, so plan at least 3 months before you may need court assistance, if not more.  In Alameda County and Contra Costa County, courts are setting hearings out as much as 6-8 weeks.

Summer brings with it thoughts of sunshine, barbeques, vacations and…custody issues if you’re a family law attorney working with divorced parents.   Summer brings with it unique challenges for the separated couple that interrupt the schedule:

  1. Vacations: a regular schedule can get way off track once a two-week vacation is scheduled.  Anticipating this in advance is critical to avoid last-minute problems.
  2. Summer camps, sports camps, and musical camps: summer camps cause problems because it is often one parent who signs the child up, and invariably the camp is set for the other parent’s time. Again, this needs to be anticipated in advance to avoid problems.
  3. Summer school: Like summer camps, summer school invariably messes up both parent’s schedules, and the parent signing the child up often does so without the permission or consultation of the other parent.
  4. Child care challenges arising from the modified summer schedule: Summer schedules often vary from the school schedule to give the lower-time parent extra time.  Week-to-week schedules are not uncommon where the school schedule just provides for weekends for the lower-time parent.  This means that both parents have to adjust for the summer, which can be tricky when dealing with younger children (who need child care) and working parents not used to having a child home all the time.

The key here is ensuring that you work with someone who knows and can anticipate these problems ahead of time and provide for them in your parenting plan.  First, this means both of you have thought of the potential problem and talked out how you would deal with it.  Second, it provides for a solution in the event you can’t agree when the dispute arises.

When to go back to court and change your custody/visitation after your divorce is final

In a prior post, we talked about how we can change the parenting plan post-divorce or –Judgment.  What we didn’t talk about is when it is imperative that we do so.  All too often I have someone in my office or calling me who needs help immediately – if not yesterday or last week or month.  Don’t wait too long in a potential emergency, or you could end up in a very difficult spot.  Here are some emergencies that require immediate action:

  1. Move away: when one parent is planning on moving to another location, and this move could be just to another school district, if you want to stop it (and you can), you need to act as soon as you know the move is happening.  If you don’t, then this can be seen as consent to the move away.  Especially when the other parent has made plans for school, a new house, etc., it can be difficult to stop the move unless you act quickly.
  2. Substance abuse:  if you suspect or you know that your ex is abusing substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, or other illegal drugs, then you need to get back into court to protect your children.  Particularly if there has been legal action, such as a DUI or other arrest, you should file a motion as soon as possible to ensure your children are not harmed.
  3. School changes/issues: if your child is having trouble in school or you want to change your child’s school, then you should try to get this before the court as soon as you can.  With the delay in the Bay Area courts – sometimes 6 weeks or more to get into an Alameda County courtroom – you can’t wait until July to make a change in the school situation.
  4. Domestic violence:  If you or your ex is being abused, get back into court as soon as possible to remove your children from the situation before they are harmed.  Domestic violence is a serious issue that should never be ignored.

Of course, this all assumes that the other parent will not cooperate with the change you want.  Start there, and if you cannot accomplish a change on your own, then you may need to go to court.  A Family Law Coach can help!  See the links at the top.