Secrets of winning child custody in California

I have many clients that come into my office and say they “want custody” of their children.  What does this mean in a California divorce or paternity case? Most often, it doesn’t mean what the client thinks it means.

In California, there are two kinds of custody: physical and legal.  Physical custody involves where your children live.  If they live with both parents, as in most cases, then custody is shared jointly.  In the case where one parent is not involved at all with the children or has domestic violence or substance abuse issues, then one parent may have sole physical custody.  The norm is shared joint physical custody.  Legal custody involves which parent has the right to make the decisions about your children’s health, education and welfare.  Again, this is generally joint except in the instances mentioned above.

What most clients are talking about when they say they want custody is the parenting plan.  This is the schedule of when your children will be with which parent.  I am often asked what a “normal” schedule is, but the reality is that schedules vary as much people do!  The important part of creating a parenting plan is to keep your children’s needs in the forefront of your mind.  They are adjusting, too, and the transition is difficult on everyone.

Second, be reasonable.  You may despise your ex, but that doesn’t give you the right to cut him or her out of your children’s lives – they remain a parent even though they are no longer your spouse.  A judge will frown on an unreasonable request made for no good reason.

Third, pick your battles.  Remember the adjustment period?  Well, that often translates into dropping grades, acting out, misbehaving, sleep problems, and overall a difficult mood or behavior from your children.  This doesn’t mean it’s all your ex’s fault, and it’s not your fault, either.  It’s just a natural part of the process.  Now, if your spouse is acting inappropriately, such as not properly feeding or dressing/grooming your children before school or harming them, then you should see the judge immediately.  But normal acting out in a divorce is, well, normal.

Finally, remember that it will pass.  At some point the custody fight will end and you will settle into a routine.  I mean, you can fight until your children are 18, but do you really have the time, money and energy to do that to yourself and to your children?  The sooner you can get to that normalcy, the better for everyone.

What is a Power of Attorney? Why is it critical that you have and up-to-date one at all times, once you turn 18?

In California, there are two kinds of powers of attorney: one for finances and one for medical decisions, also called an advance directive or living will.  A power of attorney for finances gives another individual the power to handle your financial affairs if you become incapacitated and cannot manage them on your own, like when you are hospitalized.  While you are unable to manage your own affairs, someone else can ensure that your bills are paid and utilities stay on for when you return.  The power of attorney is necessary because banks generally will not allow access to your accounts without a formal document giving specific permission to someone else, even if you are the spouse, parent, or sibling of the person who is incapacitated.

Similarly, a power of attorney for medical decisions gives the power to another person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapable of doing so due to illness, accident, or other problem.  It specifies what kind of medical treatment you do or do not want, and in the absence of one, the doctors will do all that they can to keep you alive as long as they can, even if you are in a persistent vegetative state.  In addition, in California there is the HIPAA authorization for medical records so that the person who is making your medical decisions can also look at your medical records.

Every individual 18 or over needs to have these three documents.  Sometimes, parents assume that their college-age children do not need these documents because they will be listened to as parents.  This is not always the case, so any child going off to college, or just turning 18 needs to have these documents.  Similarly, aging parents need to have one as well to avoid the difficult conservator process if they become incapacitated without proper powers of attorney.

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.

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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Divorced with kids headed back to school? Tips to avoid craziness with your ex

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.
What has been your biggest concern about your kids going back to school this year?
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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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