What are “irreconcilable differences”?

Whenever a celebrity couple splits, the media make a fuss over the citation of “irreconcilable differences” in the divorce paperwork.  What does this mean?  In California, there are three “grounds” for divorce: irreconcilable differences, fraud and bigamy (having more than one spouse).  Fraud not only is hard to prove, but the kinds of fraud are limited in California, and bigamy does not come up too often.  So any couple wanting to divorce is generally going to be in the “irreconcilable differences” category.

Irreconcilable differences essentially means that your problems are so big in your marriage that you can’t fix them, even with counseling or other outside help.

In reality, the court doesn’t much care why you want to get divorced.  This is why, when my clients want to tell me about affairs and cheating and what s/he did, I have to tell them that it doesn’t really matter for the court case (save substance abuse & domestic violence when there’s children involved).  I also tell me clients that, when they’re hung up on what happened and who did what to whom (and really, who isn’t fairly obsessed with that during a divorce?), then they should get themselves to counseling as soon as they can.  Most therapists are far cheaper than I am on an hourly basis, and they’re trained to help someone with the emotions of divorce…while I am not.

So the next time you see someone talking about “irreconcilable differences,” you’ll know that this just means the couple doesn’t like each other anymore.

What is a conservatorship?

I have been asked recently by a number of different sources to help them with a conservatorship, so it occurred to me that I should write a little bit about it.  A conservatorship occurs when you or your loved one is no longer able to manage their affairs, both the decisions about their financial affairs and the decisions regarding their personal affairs.  A conservator, often a family member, takes over these many decisions.

The problem with conservatorships is that they are court proceedings, can be lengthy, are public, can be expensive if you need an attorney (and many family members do), require filing, investigator and court fees (in addition to legal fees), require approval for certain transactions, and can require accountings of finances.  Conservatorships can be avoided altogether if the family member puts powers of attorney in place before there is an issue with capacity.  Unfortunately, not enough individuals do this in time.

There are two different kinds of conservatorships: conservatorships of the person, and conservatorship of the estate.  For a conservator of the person, decisions about food, clothing and residence are made.  For conservator of the estate, decisions regarding the financial affairs of the individual, such as paying bills, collecting income, and making investments.  Often, the conservator is the same person, though they can be two separate individuals or can be institutions.

Your best bet if you are worried that you or a loved one will become incapacitated is to execute powers of attorney for assets and health care.  These are simple documents that any estate planning attorney can prepare quickly and easily.  If it looks like it’s already too late, then you’re going to have to go down the conservatorship route.  You may want to start the proceedings before you think you need to, because the process can be lengthy.

A Family Law Coach can help to cut costs because I can walk you through the process, help you with documents, and make sure you are prepared for every step of the way…plus keep costs way down compared to traditional legal representation.

Filing your California divorce case: when and who should go first?

A critical issue that comes up in almost EVERY family law case is: when to file and who should file first.

For either a divorce or other family law case, my general feeling is that it is important to file as soon as possible. Every situation is different, and there are situations where it is a better idea to wait, but in general the best option is to file as soon as possible, or as soon as you realize you need to.

It doesn’t matter who files first, and when you file (whether it’s a divorce or paternity action), you will either be the Petitioner or the Respondent. It doesn’t matter at all which you are.

The key reason why it’s important to file as soon as you can are two-fold. First, once the Respondent is served with the paperwork you have filed, the Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs) go into effect. They are located on the back of the Summons, and prevent either party from disposing of or acquiring property – separate property or community property -from leaving the State of California with your child (without the permission of the other party), and changing benefits or beneficiaries on accounts or insurance, like life, health, and car insurance and retirement, bank and stock accounts. The second important reason to file as soon as possible is to get the date of separation determined. I’ve already talked about the importance of the date of separation, so I won’t repeat myself. But nailing down that date is beneficial to everyone.

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.

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.