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.

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.

Long-Term Care Insurance: California divorce and estate planning

There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about long-term care insurance, and I don’t profess to know all of the ins and outs of it. But I DO know that it’s critical to have for just about everyone. By the time you’ve hit your forties, you need to look into it and get a policy before it becomes too late.

Now, what does this have to do with divorce? When you’re married, you have a built-in buddy. Someone who may be able to take care of you once you start having trouble taking care of yourself. You have to figure that either you or your spouse is going to lose it before the other, and the one left standing will be the caregiver.

Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, and I am a strong believer in long-term care insurance for everyone, but this post is about divorce, so I’ll skip that.

It’s even more critical to have long-term care insurance when you are divorced because you don’t have an automatic back up to care for you if you fall ill. Long-term care covers in-home help and fills in the gap of health insurance or Medicare. In-home help can cost $25-30 per hour, and this really adds up if you need around the clock care. If you care about staying in your home and staying independent as long as you can, you should check into long-term care. And if you don’t care about these things now, believe me, you will. But perhaps by the time you realize how much you care about these things, it might be too late to get the insurance you need.

Don’t wait. Look into it now. It’s not very expensive and could mean a world of difference to you.

Changing beneficiaries during/after California divorce

While you are married, generally you name your spouse as the beneficiary on your life insurance, 401K, pension, etc. Once you get divorced, however, you are going to want to change those beneficiaries. This may sound simple, but it is extremely common for someone to forget and their ex-spouse ends up with their assets upon their death.

Why is that? I can only guess. First, as I have discussed before, during the time your case is in the court system (after you have filed your Petition but before you have your Judgment), you MAY NOT change any of your beneficiaries or your will or trust without consent from the other party. You cannot even sever a joint tenancy without notifying your spouse. But AFTER, when the case is over, you are not only free to do so, but you really need to.

I think some people forget, or once they have their Judgment, they want to put all of the hassle behind them. Don’t do this! You took the effort to get divorced – don’t forget to complete the process and change the beneficiaries on your accounts!

A friend of mine came to me recently because the spouse of a colleague of his had passed away. The only asset this person left was a life insurance policy that named a girlfriend of his from nearly twenty years before. She’s likely to lose her home because her husband, in twenty years, never changed his life insurance policy beneficiary.

Think your divorce will take six months? Think again

It is a common misconception that divorce in California takes six months.  The reality is that California has a waiting period of six months, which means that the earliest time that you can be divorced is six months and one day from the day you or your spouse is served with the divorce Petition.  The divorce process, however, bears no relationship to this timeline, and though some divorces can resolve before this, most divorces take much longer to settle.

The delay is caused by many factors. First, the courts in California are severely under funded, so the existing judges are doing the work of far more personnel, and the court staff is woefully lacking as well.  This means that the lead time to get in to see the judge for a hearing is much longer – 6-8 weeks if not more – and then follow-up hearings are also pushed out. It can take four months alone to have a temporary and review hearing on a common issue such as support or custody/visitation.

Second, the delay in the court hearings often inadvertently delays the resolution of the rest of the case.  Often what happens with the property depends on what happens with the children or support, so the parties are waiting for some kind of preliminary resolution on these issues before working on the property.  Financial reasons, too, can delay the process when one party needs an attorney’s help – or money for filing fees or mediation fees – but just can’t afford it.

Mediation and other out-of-court options can speed up the process significantly as well as keep costs down, but too many couples are unwilling to try mediation, or else they don’t know enough about the benefits.  In any event, the lengthy process of divorce is unlikely to speed up any time soon.

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