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.

Estate planning for same sex couples in California

California has made some strides toward equality for same sex couples, but it cannot be said that there isn’t still a long way to go.  As unfair as it is, same sex couple have to do more: prepare more documents, plan for more contingencies/eventualities, update more frequently – than their heterosexual counterparts.  The worst thing that a same sex couple can do is bury their heads in the sand, hoping or assuming it’s ok not to put anything in place – that somehow, some way, it’ll all be taken care of should something go wrong.

Uh, no.

Even in the best of circumstances, what you effectively do when you don’t plan is place an enormous burden on your loved ones; the ones who have loved you and cared about you the most, and the ones you have loved and cared about the most, are going to be put in a horrific situation should something happen to you and you haven’t planned for it.  And this horrific situation, not only does it come at a time of grief for your loved ones, but it is entirely avoidable.

Some tips to get you started:

  1. With no estate plan (will, trust), you die intestate (i.e. the government decides your estate plan) and the government’s plan discriminates against same sex couples.
  2. Without powers of attorney in place, the parents who threw you out of the house when you came out could be making medical and financial decisions for you if you’re incapacitated.
  3. Being a Registered Domestic Partner in California, or married, does not change these points in their entirety.
  4. Holding your property in joint tenancy with your property will not avoid the problems here, plus they could work to DIS-inherit your children and/or cause additional problems down the line.
  5. Not choosing a guardian for your child(ren) could mean they end up in foster care should something happen to you.
  6. Without a living trust, probate fees could take up to 10% of your gross estate (your estate not taking debt into account) and take 2-3 years – if not more – to resolve.

The best way to take care of your family when you are a same sex couple is to put an estate plan in place.

The divorce process in California

When I first started practicing family/divorce law in California, I wanted someone to walk me through the process, start to finish, so I could understand it as a whole.  What is troublesome, unfortunately, is that all divorces differ in many ways, so looking at the process in general can be tricky.  But let’s try…

In California, the first step in getting a divorce is to file a Petition.  It’s fairly easy, and it doesn’t matter at all which spouse files the Petition (or files first).  There’s no advantage or benefit to filing the Petition over the Response (though there may be some advantages/disadvantages to filing sooner or later, but see an attorney on this…like me!).  To file a Petition in California you have to have lived in California for six months prior to the filing and in the county where you have filed for three months prior to the filing.

Once the Petition is filed (and the UCCJEA if you have children), you may need to file for an immediate court order regarding support, child custody and visitation, property or debt division, or some other urgent manner.  To do this, you file a Request for Order.  For any issues regarding support, you much file an Income and Expense Declaration, showing your – you got it – income and expenses so the court can calculate the appropriate support.

To complete your divorce, not only do you have to agree on child and spousal support, child custody and visitation, asset and debt division and any other issues you may have, but you have to complete your disclosures and obtain a Judgment.  The disclosures are forms: the Income and Expense Declaration and the Schedule of Assets and Debts (which is, you guessed it, your assets and debts), as well as a form showing you delivered these to your soon-t0-be-ex-spouse.  These are required in California, so you must be prepared to share all of your income, expenses, assets and debts with your spouse to get divorce.

You’re now in the home stretch: to obtain a Judgment, once you have everything resolved, you have to file a number of documents with the court.  It can be confusing, and most courts have packets at the clerk’s office to help you complete it.  Of course, a Family Law Coach can always help if you get stuck.  Need more detailed help? Click here to make an online appointment.

Emotions of child and spousal support – for recipient and payor

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 the 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:

You 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.

Child Support Calculations in California

When I first meet with a family law client, if the individual has children one of the initial questions is invariably what child support will be. To my client’s frustration, I am not able to answer that question because child support is calculated in a complex manner in California. In some states, child support is calculated in a straightforward manner, such s simply taking a percentage of income. In California, this is not the case.

California uses a software program to calculate child support (the California Department of Child Support Services has it here: Child support calculator. The program takes you and your co-parent’s gross income, the percentage time share that you spend with your children, certain deductions (mortgage interest, union dues, mandatory retirement payments, for example), then it calculates your taxes and determines the appropriate ‘guideline’ child support by using a complicated calculation that the California legislature adopted years ago. Once the inputs to the program are determined (or ordered by a judge), the number that the program shows for child support is mandatory for the judge to order unless BOTH parties agree to something different (which happens rarely). Even if both parties agree to a different amount, either party may come back at ANY TIME to modify the support to the guideline level.

In California, then, the critical part of negotiating child support is knowing how the input numbers can be modified or calculated to your advantage. For example, take the time share itself. If you calculate using days versus hours, you could come out with a very different result. Bonus or overtime income is also a tricky issue, as it’s not consistent. You have to be careful that it’s not overlooked in situations where, like in construction, some seasons have little or no overtime (and some have a great deal). If you’re calculating support on the outside of a ‘dry spell’ for overtime, then you could miss the upcoming overtime. If you don’t look back twelve months, similarly, you could in November overlook a substantial holiday bonus coming in December.

Finally, as a family law litigant you have to understand that the smallest change – often unknown until the day of your hearing – can make all the difference in the world for purposes of child support. You can plan and prepare as many printouts of the child support program as you can think of, but if you get to court and the payor has lost his job the day before, that will change the situation dramatically. It is extremely important, therefore, to have a qualified professional helping you to do the calculations so that you can maximize the potential benefit to you.

Life Insurance and its potential role in California divorce

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce, behind the extreme emotional roller coaster, is the financial aspect. There’s never enough money to go around, and frequently both parties feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. The reality is that this is just the way it goes when you try to create two households out of one with the same amount of money coming in each month. One associated problem is that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend past a child’s 18th birthday (child support can go on to age 19, but that’s another issue), so the court cannot make orders about who will pay for your children’s education past high school, and how. College costs for a child who is now a toddler are astronomical – somewhere around $250,000-300,000 depending on the school. If you and your ex-spouse do not agree on how you will pay for college, then perhaps it won’t be paid at all. This is where life insurance can come in. Either or both of you can obtain and pay for a policy that will help to fund your children’s education past high school. It’s not very expensive, particularly if the cost is shared, and your child will thank you for putting aside the anger and making a joint effort on behalf of his or her education.

One final note on making that agreement: ensure that you put down in writing (1) what schools the funds will be applicable to (full-time college, trade schools, etc.), (2) what the funds will pay for (just tuition or room and board or books and supplies, or all of the above), and (3) what cuts off the funds (i.e. not attending full-time or grades below a C average).

In addition, life insurance can be taken out on the party who is paying child or spousal support, in the event that the financially-providing party/parent passes.  With the life insurance, the child(ren) and ex-spouse are insured some financial security in the event one parent dies.