Your family law hearing in California divorce: child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees…

In most family law cases, one or both parties need the court to help them with initial matters, such as child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, and attorney fees.  Because the parties cannot agree on how to handle these matters, a motion is filed with the court, asking the court to make orders on these issues.

After you file your motion with the court, you have to serve it on your opponent. Hopefully, you know that already. Once your opponent receives your motion, he or she has time to file a response. By filing your paperwork in advance, you each have the opportunity to review what the other is saying, and prepare your response to it. This is important because you should never be forced to respond to something about which you do not have advance warning. This goes both ways: you can’t spring something on your opponent and get away with it.

When you get to court on your appointed day and time, remember the following:

1. Get there early to allow yourself to get lost (and find it), to 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.
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.

What is "Legal Separation" in California divorce? It’s not what you think!

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

First, the one that applies to everyone getting divorced. After your date of separation, which you learned all about in the last posting, 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.

Second, there is a box on the Petition for you to mark “Legal Separation” instead of “Dissolution” (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.

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 a 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.

What is your date of marriage and date of separation in California divorce, and why are these critical dates?

On the Family Law Dissolution Petition, you have to state your date of marriage and date of separation. These can be critical issues, even if it doesn’t seem so at a passing glance.

The date of marriage is generally not the big issue, as the date is not only commonly known by the couple as their anniversary, but it’s recorded on the publicly-recorded marriage certificate.

The date of separation is trickier. This is the date that you and your spouse physically separated and had the intent to “separate and live forever apart.” If you continued to live in the same house, this can be a difficult date to pinpoint. But what you must understand is that this is generally not a big deal because both parties frequently agree on the date of separation (I think it’s the day when you both knew/decided it was forever and finally over).

But it CAN be a big deal in certain situations. For example, say one party wins the lottery, and then says that the date of separation was before the win (thus making it the winner’s separate property as opposed to be divided equally between the couple). In that case, the issue of the date of separation can be separately litigated in a trial. The court will look at the physical separation of the parties – did they live apart, for example – as well as the intent of the parties and the way they “held themselves out” to others. This involves looking at what others though, such as their friends and family. Did they think they were together or separated? Finally, the court has a pretty strong presumption that the later date is the date of separation.

Dissolution: issues in a California divorce

In every divorce (or dissolution) case, the court has a universe of issues it may resolve. The issues are common to most cases in that most cases have all of them, but some omit a couple. The issues are child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, property and debt division, attorney fees, and status. We’ll examine each of these in detail, but here’s an overview:

There are two aspects of the non-financial issues with your child (and I say child with the understanding that many folks have more than one child): 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.

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.

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.

How to file for divorce in California

In general, filing a family law case is fairly simple. For a divorce or paternity case, the process is about the same. You need to file a Summons (different for each case), which basically just identifies you and your opponent and states that you are suing your opponent. With the Summons, you have to file a Petition (again, different for divorce and paternity), which is the ‘meat’ of the filing. The Petition specifies what’s going on and what you want, and defines the universe of options for your case.

For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, if you want to be able to get spousal support at any time during your case, you MUST mark that box in your Petition. If you don’t, then it comes off the table completely. You need to file your Petition correctly, and there can be tricky elements, but for the most part it is fairly simple.

Finally, if you have children, you need to file the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). This form sounds scarier than it is, as it’s simply where your child has lived for the last five years.

Of course, if you are asking for any orders, such as a custody or visitation order, child or spousal support, or anything else, you have to file other forms. But merely filing your case involves just these three forms: Summons, Petition, and UCCJEA.

Forms in California divorce: Navigating the document overload

Forms, forms, forms. The life of a family law litigant is filled with forms. The first thing you will file is your Summons and Petition, then every time you want something, you will have to file another form (or two or three). Completing your case involves even more forms.

The bad news? The forms are complicated, confusing, and far from user-friendly. One example is just the title. The title of the form, the name of it, is located at the bottom of it, which is probably the last place you’d look for a title.

More bad news? You MUST fill out your forms properly to (1) convey what you want, (2) get what you want, (3) have your documents accepted by the court (and not kicked back unfiled), and (4) complete your case properly.

The worst bad news? Filling out a form can be devastating to your case. For example, if you fail to make the box for “spousal support” on the Petition for divorce when you first file, then you can never ask for it. Ever. (OK so there are ways to amend your Petition, but this is not easy or common, and is far from guaranteed). So if you file and do not ask for spousal support, then your ex, three years later when you’re still fighting, wins the lottery just as you lose your job, you’re out of luck.

Redeeming news? There’s help out there, all over the place. You can even fill out the forms online here: CA Judicial Council Forms. Just be careful.