Divorce hearing coming up? Tips to make it more successful and less nerve-wracking

A divorce hearing, especially your first one, can be cause for panic and extreme nerves.  After being a part of hundreds of them, I’ve learned a few tricks to help you get through it more smoothly:

1. Get there early to allow yourself to get lost (and find it), park, 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.  Signs should make this clear.
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.

Need more help?  Click here for our FREE Divorce e-Course.

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.

California divorce: My ex is crazy! How do I get the judge to see this?! Why doesn’t he understand?!

So frequently I have someone come to me and tell me that their ex is crazy and they just can’t get the judge to see it and understand. They give me dozens of examples of what he or she has done, telling me that it’s just not fair that the judge doesn’t see it. In these cases, there’s generally a couple things going on that we have to keep in mind.

First, the reality is that if your ex is crazy, then there’s a pretty high likelihood that the crazy behaviors spill over to you as well. Of course, your excuse is going to be that s/he makes me act crazy! And this may be the case, but from where the judge is sitting, it doesn’t matter. If you both are acting crazy, then the judge is not going to see a difference in the craziness.

Second, you have to learn how to back up your claims. If you say your ex is crazy and then give examples of the craziness that do not include hard, verifiable facts, then the judge won’t believe you. For example, if you say you showed up at the appointed time to pick up little Joey, and your ex wasn’t there, then your ex is going to be given the opportunity to respond. Your ex may say you were six hours late, didn’t show up at the right place, or showed up on a motorcycle and wanted to take little five year-old Joey away on it. You need substantiation. If your exchange spot is McDonald’s, go in and buy something and keep the time-stamped receipt. Take a picture of yourself in your car – time and date stamped – showing you were at your ex’s house at the appointed time. If you were ordered to contact a mediator or therapist or other professional and your ex won’t cooperate, then get an email showing YOUR contact and acknowledgement that your ex has failed to communicate. You have to give the judge something to go on.

Finally, you have to learn how to talk in court. Keep your emotions down. Stick to the facts. Do not engage in conversation with your ex – talk to the judge. Be respectful at all times, no matter what. If the judge is not hearing you, ask to be heard on an issue. Say thank you at the end, even if you’ve lost.

You have to gain credibility and use it, which can take time. You also have to distance yourself from the craziness so that you don’t get pulled into it.

Going to court in California divorce: Judges are people, too!

We learn that the law is blind, and images of lady justice come to mind when we think of the legal system…right? Well, maybe not all of us.

Most family law attorneys will tell you that decisions on family law issues depend heavily on which county you are in and even which courtroom (in front of which judge). You may think that this is unfair, that judges should apply the law uniformly. But I disagree – this is perfectly natural.

The whole reason we have the legal system is that reasonable people can disagree on many issues. Because of this, we need help in the form of the legal system and litigation. Judges are part of the legal system, and are bound to apply the law in as neutral way as possible. But the law is not always clear enough to apply totally neutrally.

Take this as an example: Parents live in neighboring cities, and each wants their child to attend the school in their neighborhood. The judge is charged with making this decision, and the standard is that the court should act – that is, pick the school – in the best interest of the child. How does the judge make this decision? Judges can look at where the child has gone to school in the past (to avoid disrupting the child’s schedule and established friends), can look to which school is objectively ‘better’ in terms of test scores and the like. The judge can look to see to which parent the child seems more bonded (and thus would be harmed by not being with that parent for school). The judge can look to where the child’s support system – other family members, friends, teachers, church, etc. – are.

But these factors are subjective, to at least a certain extent, and different judges will base their decisions on their own beliefs and experience on which are most important. For example, a judge who just read an article about the critical importance of an extended support system to a child may put more weight on that factor than a judge who hasn’t seen the article.

Similarly, judges are going to have their own opinions on various family law issues. They may tend to weigh certain factors more heavily than others, or tend to rule one way or another. This doesn’t mean that the judge is bad or biased, it just means that the judge is human.

So, what can you do about it? Look, and learn. Attend your judge’s hearings – they’re public! – and see how he or she tends to rule, how he or she runs the courtroom, and what arguments, attitudes, and styles seem to be the most persuasive.

Knowledge is power.

Is it helpful or harmful that your lawyer knows your ex’s lawyer?

Over the five years that I worked a;most exclusively in Solano County, I got to know the other lawyers in that county quite well.  I knew who was a pushover, who was sharp as a tack, who would cave right before trial, who was sneaky, who I could trust, and who would mean the case would cost double or triple what I expected.  Often, my clients would ask about the other lawyer, and I would share what I knew.

Often, too, my clients would express dismay, frustration and sometimes even anger that I knew and was friendly with the other lawyer.  They thought it would make me “softer” and not fight as hard for them.  They thought my friendship came “above” my responsibilities to them as a client.  It’s unfortunate that I was unable to convince them of how very wrong they were.  I am not the only one who has experienced this, and this article describes well what I am explaining here.

First, they never understood that I take my job and my responsibility to vigorously advocate for my clients very seriously.  Regardless of who is opposing me, I am going to fight for my client in the same way.  I operate by acting in my client’s best interests, and we discuss our strategy before every case.  I will be more cautious when working with someone I can’t trust, but my behavior does not change markedly from case to case and client to client.  Obviously, when pushed I will push back and I can – and will – get down in the trenches and fight when appropriate.  But in many cases this is not necessary and serves only to escalate the cost of the case.

Second, by knowing my opposing counsel, I know what to expect from them, good or bad.  When it’s a friend of mine, I can expect that they won’t blindside me or screw me over.  That helps my client, helps the case, and keeps costs down.

Similarly, my friends trust me as well, so they are more likely to work more easily with me and, as a consequence, work with their client to make the case more reasonable.  In cases with lawyers I am friendly with, there’s more of an attitude of “trust but verify” – we can agree on things in principle, while proof is in process.  With other lawyers, we may need to more through expensive discovery before we can even sit down to start to discuss the issues.  While it may seem that time cools the fires of anger, resentment and vengefulness, it is often the opposite. The longer the case drags on, the harder it can be to settle.

So, which would you prefer?  I would want an attorney who knew my opposing counsel well, and was friendly with them.

Uncontested divorce: what to do when your spouse won’t participate in the divorce

On occasion I talk to someone who tells me that while they want a divorce, their spouse refuses to talk about it and says they won’t participate or sign anything.  Understandably, the spouse who wants the divorce finds this distressing.  But this is nothing to be stressed about, and here’s why:

First, once you file for divorce, your spouse is likely to at least seek out some kind of advice from someone, whether it’s looking around online, buying a book, talking to a family member, or talking to a lawyer.  When faced with an unknown, most individuals will act in self-preservation.  Since the only advice to give to someone who says they don’t want to participate in their divorce is DON’T DO THAT, those that get advice often find their way to action one way or another.

Second, there is a process for a default divorce, which is what it is called when one party does not file any documents (unlike “uncontested,” which doesn’t really mean anything anymore because in California, and in most states, you can’t “contest” a divorce – though you can contest the terms of the divorce!).  Once you file the Petition and serve it on your spouse, your spouse has 30 days (again, in California.  Your state may vary in its rules) to respond by filing a Response to the Petition.  If that Response is not filed, then the Petitioner spouse can file for default.  This is the process whereby the Petitioner files all of the income, expense, assets and debt information with the court and gets to determine who will get what, including child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and asset and debt division.  It still must be equitable (or roughly equal), but what you consider equal and what your spouse considers equal may be radically different concepts.  So long as the proposed Judgment by the Petitioner is not too skewer in one party’s favor, the Judgment gets filed and is an order of the court.

It’s simple in theory but can be complicated to complete, especially since the forms can be a pain to fill out.  But the fact that one spouse can make all the decisions regarding the divorce generally prompts the other spouse to action.  Consider the possibility of child and spousal support being determined without your input or participation at all, or child custody and visitation.  Most spouses tend to act when faced with the actual divorce paperwork, even if they say they don’t want any part of it.

Things they don’t tell you about divorce in California (and everywhere else!)

I have talked a lot about the different aspects of  divorce in California, financial aspects, alternative options, parenting in divorce, and preparation, among other topics, but I’ve never written about all those aspects you don’t know about or hear about until you are in the thick of it.  Here’s a few of the key things they don’t tell you about divorce:

  1. It’s going to take a LOT longer and cost a LOT more than you ever imagined.  No, longer than that….and even longer than that.  Whatever you’ve imagined, add at least 50% more time and money.  And this isn’t just attorney fees money, it’s lost wages money (those pesky court appearances), increased debt money, and new expenses money (new blender, new apartment).
  2. Attorneys – even your attorney – can seem like s/he isn’t on your side.  Sometimes this is good, as when you’re hearing the reality of divorce and your attorney is not just telling you what you want to hear (so you’ll be disappointed later), but sometimes it’s bad, as when your attorney is mean or nasty to you.
  3. Your attorney may not be telling you ways to save money on your divorce.  This can vary from attorney to attorney, and it can range from benign oversight to outright malpractice.  You have to decide what’s going to work for you, but don’t fail to either get a second opinion or learn at least some law and procedure so you know what questions to ask.  The more you fight, the more the lawyers get.
  4. The system is not fair.  It’s not designed to make you feel better or vindicated or right.  It’s flawed, and the people involved are flawed, as people are.  “Making the judge see your side” is not going to get you your way.  What will get you your way is having the facts on your side.
  5. Your children will act out, misbehave, develop illnesses they never had, and otherwise have a really hard time with the divorce.  Instead of blaming your ex-spouse, work with him/her to help your children.  You will save them in the short AND long run.
  6. Your lawyer is not going to be offended if you fire him/her and get another lawyer.  Most lawyers welcome the reduction in caseload and “starting over” with a new lawyer is not hard at all.
  7. Much like #4 above, the legal system is not going to help you at all with the emotional aspects of the divorce.  Get a therapist, as soon as you can.  Get over it, in your own way and your own time, and not with lawyers, courts and hearings.
  8. The more you learn/know, the better off you’ll be, regardless of how complicated or contentious your case is, the amount of lawyers’ fees (if any), and how long the process takes.