Child and spousal support in California divorce

A common issue of serious contention in a divorce or other family law case is support. This is because money is a sensitive and difficult subject in these cases. Often you are dealing with the breakup of a household. Suddenly, the same money that used to support one household now has to support two. It’s tough, and leads to many emotional issues.

Child and spousal support are treated differently, but also the same. Let me explain…

Let’s start with the differences. First, spousal support is not available in a paternity, or UPA, case, but only in a divorce. Second, the judge has discretion to deny a request for spousal support, but cannot deny someone child support. Third, child support is always on the table as an issue, whereas spousal support must be specifically requested in the Petition to be considered.

Spousal support is used to keep each spouse in the same financial position that they were in during marriage. Generally it lasts approximately half the length of the marriage, except in long-term marriages, where it lasts indefinitely (which does not mean forever, but rather it lasts until an undetermined time in the future where it isn’t required anymore). The one receiving support has the legal obligation to become self-supporting as quickly as possible, considering that person’s ability to earn. It is commonly believed that a ten-year marriage is considered long-term, but I saw that the courts did not look at a marriage less than about 18-20 years as being long-term. Other counties may vary.

I already talked about how long child support lasts, so I won’t repeat myself. Child support is used for the health, maintenance and welfare of your child. Given that, it does not mean that you, as a payor of child support, can take your co-parent to court because you do not believe that your child support is being used properly. In California, we trust the parent to spend the child support appropriately, so the court won’t even consider an allegation that someone is squandering child support. At the same time, each parent has the legal responsibility to work to support your child financially. The court may order a parent to work who is not working or not working up to his or her potential.

In the beginning stages of a case, child and spousal support are calculated similarly, using the support calculator (which you can find here: support calculator). Spousal support on a long-term basis is calculated by a judge using a number of factors, including the need of the payee and the ability to pay of the payor.

UPA: Paternity action in California

UPA stands for Uniform Parentage Act, and is the name of the case when you have a child outside of marriage. Commonly called paternity cases, this is 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.

Once it is determined that you are a parent of a child, you are required to support that child financially. 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.

What?

The court’s jurisdiction over a child lasts until age 18 for custody and visitation. At age 18, the court can no longer order a child to visit with either parent. 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 (alimony) in a UPA case.

Secrets of child and spousal support (alimony) in California divorce

One of the hot button issues in divorce is child and spousal support. It’s a hot button because it involves money, and money is a leading cause of divorce. Many couples are already tense about money, and when you add in the support issue, things can blow up. The problem is one of simple math:

With a married couple, you generally have one household surviving on the income of two parties. You take that household and divide it in two when the couple separates, and you have the same amount of money (not enough) now supporting two households instead of one. Ouch.

Regardless of who moves out and who is the spouse paying for child and/or spousal support, it hurts both parties. The one paying can see in his or her paycheck that the amount being brought home is, in some cases, actually smaller than the amount being paid for support. The one being paid just looks at the money coming in and the bills to be paid, and can’t quite see how to resolve the disparity.

Arguments, often heated ones, ensue. The key is to recognize that not only is this going to happen, but to catch it early and address it. It isn’t going to be easy for either of the spouses, and they had better be prepared. Both spouses, in most cases, are working hard to maintain their lives while they go through the difficult time, and a small amount of understanding goes a long way.

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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?

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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