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.

Your pending California divorce case: What to do with your will

I have been thinking more about my posting about your will, and I felt it needed more to make it complete. Specifically, IF you have a divorce case currently, what can you do NOW to protect yourself and your children? Divorce cases can last for years. Yes, unfortunately this is true, so we have to hope for the best (a speedy and as-painless-as-possible case) and plan for the worst (an endless case). So if you have a case and the ATROs (see last week’s post about what these are) prevent you from changing your will (or estate plan), here are some things you can do.

First, take advantage of the ability to sever joint tenancy (JT). The ATROs allow you to sever joint tenancy with simply NOTICE to the other party. Sever this JT and should something happen to you, you have the ability to give your half of any real property (a house, for example) to someone other than your estranged spouse.

Second, have a conversation. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer might be telling you never to talk to your estranged spouse. I disagree with this family law case philosophy because (as one of our local judges used to say) YOU are in the best position to come to a resolution of your case. If you stop talking to each other, then hostility can grow and you may be likely to fight more. Now, this approach works well for the lawyer, who gets to funnel ALL of your issues at $450 an hour! It’s better on you, your relationship, your pocketbook, and your case if you’re able to talk to each other. Talk about changing your will so each of you can make an estate plan that provides for your own property to go to the individuals you choose instead of each other.

Third, if you can’t have an informal conversation, bring it up in a formal setting. Whether it’s a meeting with your lawyers, a court conference, or if you add it to the issues to be raised at a hearing, make time to discuss these issues so they’re at least out in the open.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Here, I want to ask (and answer!) the question, do you need a will (and when and why). The answer, which might be surprising to you, is absolutely YES! With very few exceptions, everyone needs a will.

In my business and in this blog, I have worked hard to educate others on the importance of an estate plan centered around a living trust. A living trust avoids probate, transfers your property easily upon your death, and allows you to avoid fees and taxes (among many other reasons that you can see in my estate planning blog). But your estate plan has other components, and one of these is your will. In an estate plan, your will is called a “pour-over” will because it’s intended to ‘catch’ any property that you have left outside your estate.

Now, you may be asking, what kind of estate plan is it if you leave something out of it?! Well, sometimes we forget (despite the repeated reminders from our friendly estate planning attorney), and sometimes there’s just not time. If you acquire property and pass away before you are able to complete the transfer to your trust, then you want that will to ensure that your property transfers appropriately to your heirs through the probate process.

But in the context of family law, when and why is a will important? Let’s look at this issue in two contexts because they’re very different. First, let’s look at the time when you are going through your divorce or other family law case (where you are restricted from changing/updating your will) and once the action (case) is completed (where you NEED to update it).

The Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs) in the Family Law Summons provide,

“Creating a nonprobate transfer or modifying a nonprobate transfer in a manner that affects the disposition of property subject to the transfer, without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court. Before revocation of a nonprobate transfer can take effect or a right of survivorship to property can be eliminated, notice of the change must be filed and served on the other party.”

What? This basically means that you cannot change your will or living trust during the pendency of your action without written consent of the other party or a court order. Note that this includes severing a joint tenancy on a property (which does not require consent but does require advance written notice). So when you are in the middle of a divorce and you pass away, that house you have in joint tenancy goes automatically to your ex. Ouch. But if you don’t know about these restrictions, then you could get into trouble with the court, which is a bad idea. Also, remember this if you’re thinking of filing for divorce.

Once your case is over, however, you really DO need to update your will. In fact, you most likely need a full estate plan that includes a living trust. Hopefully I have convinced you of that by now. If you don’t, then your out-of-date document WILL control the disposition of your assets. To look at recent examples, Brittany Murphy did not update her will when she got married. Heath Ledger never updated his will after his daughter was born (and that caused all kinds of trouble).

Don’t make their mistakes, and always make sure your estate plan is updated to take into account a marriage, divorce, birth, death, or acquisition of property.

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.

Powers of Attorney: Why do you need them, particularly in a California divorce case?

There are two kinds of powers of attorney: one for health care, and one for assets. They both allow you to choose the person who will make decisions for you in the event you cannot, either due to mental or physical incapacitation. If you are in a car accident and unconscious for several days or weeks, someone will have to make decisions for you regarding your care and treatment (this hospital or that one, this medication or that one, etc.) as well as your finances. Someone will need access to your bank account to pay your mortgage, utilities, etc. so they do not fall behind.

If you do not choose who this person will be, then the state decides for you. If you are married, then your spouse decides. This is still the case if you have filed for divorce but not yet come to a Judgment. If you have filed for divorce, then it is likely that you do NOT want your estranged spouse making medical and financial decisions for you. In that case, you need to create powers of attorney naming someone else.

Everyone who is 18 or over should have these documents prepared to ensure that their medical wishes are followed and that they have someone who can make both financial and medical decisions for them if they are injured or ill, and unable to do so.  Many parents believe that they are the automatic decision-makers for their adult children, but this is not the case.  If you have an adult child, too, they should have a power of attorney naming you as agent so that you can make decisions on their behalf, examine medical records, and handle finances should they be injured or in an accident.

The importance of the Nomination of Guardian: Who cares for your children when you cannot

Say you’ve gone out to dinner with your friends or your spouse or your new beau. The kids are at home with the babysitter, someone you trust but who’s just a teenager. On your way home, the road is wet (as it has been for a while now all over California) and you get into a car accident. When you’re taken to the hospital, unconscious, the police are going to go to your house to check on your children. When there’s nothing in writing saying who should take your children in the event you are incapacitated (I recommend posting this on the refrigerator), then the police will take your children. The Nomination of Guardian can prevent this.

Your Nomination of Guardian states who you want to care for your children if you are not able to. It can be temporary, such as after an accident, or permanent, such as if you pass away. It is critical to have so that you do not have a gap of time in which your children are taken to the police station and sent out to foster homes until the situation resolves itself.

In the case of a divorce or other child custody case, it takes on a new significance because now there are two households involved. BOTH parents should have a custody and visitation agreement readily accessible to them and their child caregivers, and the agreement should be as specific as possible – even if the couple is agreeing and cooperating with each other – to break the “tie” in the event of a dispute. If the agreement/order says, “visitation as the parents agree,” then the police will not enforce that vague order. With a nomination of guardian, if the couple has already chosen one, both parties have to (1) understand that the other parent will be the guardian if something happens to them (unless there are issues of substance abuse, domestic violence, or some other issue that limits custody/parenting time for one parent), and (2) that the person the couple picked when they were a couple might not continue to be appropriate. Because the couple is now separated, there is a significantly lesser chance that they will die together, but that doesn’t mean a nomination of guardian is less important. Each parent needs to decide who THEY think will be the most appropriate person, and create a document memorializing that.

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.