What is a dissolution and why can’t California just call it a divorce?

At some point in the 1970s or 1980s, California decided that the word “divorce” was too casual, so it switched to the term “dissolution” for the breakup of a marriage.  Regardless of what you call it, however, every dissolution has several common issues.  Not every divorce is identical, of course, and your case may not include some of these issues (for example, if you do not have children), but many do.

In every divorce (or dissolution) case, the court has a universe of issues it may resolve. The issues are child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, property and debt division, attorney fees, and status. Here is an overview of each:

There are two aspects of the non-financial issues with your child/ren: 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 incurred during the marriage.

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.

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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.

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How much is this going to cost me: why attorney fees for divorce and family law cases are so hard to predict: Part III – Keeping attorney fees down

We’ve spent some time in the last couple days, talking about how it’s nearly impossible to predict total attorney fees/costs in a family law or divorce case. But you may be wondering if it’s just hopeless or if there’s at least a way to keep them as reasonable as possible. There is! Hope! Now, it may take some effort on your part, but if you want to save on attorney fees, then here’s a few ways to do so:

  1. Choose the right attorney. This may seem obvious, but many clients pick the first attorney they see. It’s understandable, as it can be emotional, time-consuming, and even expensive to see more than one attorney for a consultation (also see my article on why you shouldn’t see attorneys with free consultations – click here). You may be taking time off work or traveling to their office, which can be a pain. But it’s your family, your children, your money, your assets and your future – shouldn’t you pick the right one? Also, attorneys vary a LOT in temperament, approach to cases, billing practices, responsiveness, and personality. Choose someone you feel you like and trust – this is probably the most important thing. It can be rather expensive to change attorneys, and if you’re doing that, it’s possible you have to work to undo what the first attorney did. It’s much better to just choose wisely in the beginning, even if it’s a little tougher at the start to see a few before you decide.
  2. Know and understand the attorney’s billing practices. Attorneys vary in their billing. We bill in the smallest increments possible – 0.1 of an hour, or 6 minutes. Many attorneys bill in 15 minute increments – which can lead to a whopping bill if you’re charged $100 (0.25 of a $400/hour attorney) for every “quick question” email you send to your attorney! By understanding their practices, you can then tailor your actions to keep the costs down, like, for example, combining your “quick question” emails into not one each day, but a list of 10 questions once a week.
  3. Find out if they will help you keep fees down. In our office, we have a letter for new clients that gives tons of advice and options for keeping attorney fees lower. We let clients know that one email with a bunch of questions will likely be charged less than 10 emails with one question each. We offer the client options for service of documents: we can do it if the opposing party will pick documents up, or the client can do it at no charge to them, or we can pay a service. These are just a couple examples of how we work with clients who want to save money on fees. If your attorney doesn’t have suggestions for keeping fees lower, then maybe they’re not concerned about it – which could be a red flag for you as a client. This of course goes back to suggestion number 1 on keeping fees down.
  4. Stop fighting! The more you and the opposing party argue, the more your fees will be. The more you agree, the less they will be. Court hearings & trials will almost always be the largest chunk of fees that you pay, since family law attorney billing in California is nearly always time-based and court hearings can take multiple hours. Now, you don’t want to just agree to anything to lower your attorney fees, but you should be considering – and talking to your attorney about – the fees when contemplating certain actions. I have clients who want to file this motion and that motion, and in our discussion of whether it’s a good idea or not, we discuss not just the chances of winning, but also the consequences of the action in terms of family harmony and fees. This is how we work holistically with the client to be sure we’re acting in the client’s best interests. But fighting and high conflict for the sake of conflict – because you’re angry that you’re getting divorced, for example – is most often not appropriate to be brought into court. When there’s high conflict for the sake of fighting, the only one who wins is the attorney who is collecting the fees. We always try to encourage settlement when we can.
  5. Stop the bleeding if you’ve made a mistake. If you discover that you have the wrong attorney or have been approaching your case in the wrong way, then it’s not too late to change. It’s almost never too late, so find another attorney or dial down the hostility or change your tactic, and this could bring the fees down – and probably get your case completed more quickly, too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our series on divorce and family law costs. If you have more questions, we always love to hear from you directly, or you can make an appointment to meet with us by clicking on the tree to the right.

How much is this going to cost me: why attorney fees for divorce and family law cases are so hard to predict: Part II

Yesterday we talked about how family law/divorce case fees are hard to predict because every case is different. Today, we’re going to talk about how the other side makes things unpredictable as well.

In discussing how we approach our family law cases, we made it clear that we look at each case individually, and determine strategy depending on what that case, that client, and that specific issue requires. Generally-speaking, you’d think that, with time and experience, we’d be able to make estimates or educated guesses on the total cost of a family law or divorce case. Unfortunately, there’s another variable in these cases that throws a wrench into that theory, and sadly, blows it all apart: the other side.

We don’t know what the other side is going to do.

When we talk to a client, we talk about the current relationship between the parties and potential reactions to whatever action we’re contemplating. We talk about tone for declarations and proposals. We talk about the need to be gentle where needed, and more aggressive in other situations, where appropriate. We talk about options the other side might agree to, and what are more likely to be sticking points. Our goal is to get the result that our clients wants, and part of that is understanding how to present ourselves and our case to get that result from the other side or from the court. But that’s just step one.

Ultimately, though, we don’t know what the other side is going to do.

We’ll present our argument – whether it’s to the court or to the other side directly (or most often, both at the same time in a Request for Order) – in a manner that we think will maximize our chances of getting what we want. But then it’s time for the other side to respond to our request.

Initially, it’s a pretty fair assumption to make that the other side will get some advice in determining what to do. They most likely won’t respond, agreeing or not, based on just conversations between the spouses or what they think they know about divorce or family law. They’ll look for advice. That advice could take the form of talking to a family member or friend, whose advice could be spot on, but is more likely to be utterly inaccurate. The advice could be in the form of internet research, which could be as helpful as it is harmful. The advice could take the form of consultations with an attorney or several attorneys, each of whom could have different approaches or advice. The advice could, of course, be the hiring and retaining of an attorney for the other party, which is most often what happens.

Before we move on, I want to make one point clear. Regardless of whether the other side has a great attorney or not-so-great attorney or no attorney, we must respond to what they do. So if they file unnecessary motions or react explosively to every little thing, then we have to respond. If they have an attorney who is hard to get in touch with – or they don’t have an attorney and are hard to reach – then we have to work harder (i.e. spend more time and money) to get things done. If the other side hires one of those aggressive attorneys we discussed yesterday, and send over a mountain of discovery on a simple case, we still have to respond. In this way, the actions of the other side have a lot to do with how much any case costs. In fact, each side contributes almost equally in determining how much a family law case costs. The difference is that we can only have any control over what our side does.

So, by not knowing – or having any way of knowing – what the other side is going to do, we just can’t make any predictions as to the total cost of any of our divorce cases. No one can. We don’t know if the advice they get will be good or bad. We don’t know if they’re going to hire an attorney who is both responsive and reasonable – like we are – and thus allow us to keep fees down. We don’t know if they’re going to hire someone who will do everything they can to drive up the fees. We don’t know if they won’t hire anyone, and will make mistakes or emotional decisions, being unreasonable & delaying the process because they can’t handle it or don’t know what to do.

All we can do is control what our side does, and keep in close contact with our clients to be sure our approach is consistent with what the client and case needs. Tomorrow, in the final Part III of this series, we’ll talk about ways to keep attorney costs down.

How much is this going to cost me: why attorney fees for divorce and family law cases are so hard to predict: Part I

I am working with a client right now to help her file a motion to modify her child and spousal support (alimony). It’s a fairly straightforward motion, but there are several moving parts that complicate things a bit. The incomes of both parties have changed, both parties have moved out of California, and there may be an issue of under- or over-payment of support because both the former agreement and the specific circumstances are unclear (the agreement is contradictory in terms in a couple places, and some payments received by one party were for one thing – severance – but called something else – bonus). Oh, and the other party’s income is from a side business of sorts that the other party claims doesn’t exist (or at least doesn’t lead to any income, naturally!).

This client is also trying very hard to save money because funds are tight. So, with this situation, there are a couple options that I have, as an attorney, in proceeding. I could spend 10 hours on this motion to modify, outlining what’s happened in great detail in the 2 years since the agreement. I could document and chart every payment over the years, and compare it to pay stubs and the agreement, showing the payments were or were not appropriate. I could file a lengthy Points and Authorities about the various legal arguments on each issue. I could send discovery over to the other party to discern the situation with the side business. All of this would be proper and appropriate, but at the same time would also cost this client several thousand dollars to complete. Some attorneys will only handle cases in this way.

But the client doesn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to file a modification of a support order – she wants to modify the support order because she is struggling financially. Usually it’s sufficient in a motion such as this one to explain the situation in the plainest terms and request the modification. As an attorney, of course I want to pull all of the stops and file the strongest motion I possibly can. But family law is more than that. Family law issues must take into consideration the time and fees it takes to prepare documents. It has to take into consideration the reaction by the other side, and subsequent breaking down (or not) of the relationship between the two parties – who are often parents…parents who have to parent together for a lifetime. There is often a very strong interest in maintaining civil relationships in family law cases, and the importance of that cannot be ignored. Pulling all the stops in a family law motion – and making the other side angry – may break down any possibility of an informal settlement/agreement (and no time & money spend on a court hearing) before the process has hardly started. Why close that door unnecessarily? I’d much prefer to be a bit more diplomatic, a bit more neutral in my recounting of the circumstances, so that the door to settlement, the options for agreement without court intervention, stay wide open. There’s always time to fight more aggressively, but if you come across too strongly to begin with, then it can be hard to undo the alienation it caused, dial that back effectively & reach agreement.

All of these things have to be discussed between client and attorney to determine the best course of action, given the client’s all-around circumstances. I know a lot of attorneys who approach every case the same way. Sometimes it’s by going full-out on every case, whether it’s warranted or not. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and an attorney will do the bare minimum in each case. I just don’t think cases and clients can be lumped together that way, in a one-size-fits-all manner. Especially when it’s a family law case, with real and long-term repercussions for real people and children, too.

Clients and potential clients have told me about attorneys who have insisted to them that they “fight aggressively” for every client, on every issue, and that this is their job. There are plenty of attorneys who have this philosophy and act accordingly with their cases – and often, too, are quite proud of their “shark” reputation. Personally I think this is poor lawyering, at best, and unconscionable, unethical behavior at worst. Family law involves families, and figuring out how to approach each client, each circumstance, and each case is a balancing act of strong advocacy at all times, tempered by tact, gentle persuasion when appropriate, and consideration of the situation (and consequences of each action) at every turn. A case may start out both amicable and collegial between the parties, and then turn in to a high-conflict, difficult case requiring “shark-like” tactics. The reverse may also happen.

The point is to (1) meet the client where they are, and not try to force the case or its issues to be either higher or lower conflict than they are (though we always encourage settlement, we don’t encourage it when not fair or warranted), and (2) tailor the response to any situation by taking into account the entirety of the case, client, other party, finances, potential consequences, and circumstances in a holistic manner. Every case is different, so every case should be approached by the attorney in a way that’s consistent with the nature of the circumstances.

We do this because we work closely with our clients to achieve their best possible result, and we believe that tailoring the approach to the client and case is the only way to do that effectively. A highly aggressive approach may be appropriate in some situations, and may even be effective in many court situations, but when there are consequences that can do more harm that the aggressive “win” helped, we don’t think that’s the way to go. When choosing an attorney, I think these considerations are important. You want to be sure you’re picking the right attorney for you, your case & circumstances, and for your family and children.

Today we talked about how family law costs are unpredictable because cases vary so much in general. Tomorrow we’re going to talk about the unpredictability of case fees in another way – how the actions and response of the other side/party make all the difference in the world…and again, can’t be predicted with any accuracy.

Do-it-yourself lawyers: saving money and gaining empowerment in California divorce

A recent New York Times article starts off by saying, “America’s courts are built on a system of rules and procedures that assume that almost everyone who comes to court has a lawyer. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different…Litigants who cannot afford a lawyer, … are on their own — pro se. What’s more, they’re often on their own in cases involving life-altering situations like divorce, child custody and loss of shelter.”

THIS is why I do what I do. The vast majority of family law litigants do not have lawyers, and they need help. They need help finding out what their case is all about (what are they entitled to? How do they get there?), how to fill out documents, how to appear before the court, and how to complete their case and be successful.

The article is here: New York Times Article.

Before, attorneys were only permitted to act on an all or nothing basis. We could represent clients in every aspect, or not at all. This helps the pocketbooks of lawyers, but not clients very much. It also doesn’t help the inherent underlying conflict between attorney and client: Resolving a case informally is most often better for the client and is MUCH, MUCH less expensive than litigation. Moving forward with litigation is easier and MUCH, MUCH more lucrative for the attorney. This presents a problem for attorneys and clients that isn’t often talked about, and can lead to problems for both.

Working on an as-needed or hourly basis with family law clients, family law attorneys are able to work in perfect concert with clients, giving them precisely what they need and presenting all the available options with no attachment to any of them. Clients not only are able to save money and learn what options are best for them, they are empowered to direct their own case, and the resolution thereof. Studies indicate unanimously that litigants who actively participate in the direction and resolution of their own case are the most satisfied and happiest with the outcomes.

We are a nation in which the fairness of the process means a great deal. Representing yourself with a well-qualified coach can make the process work for anyone involved in a family law case.

Attorney fees in California divorce

Attorney fees in a family law case can be astronomical. Most attorneys require you to pay their fee up front, too, so the financial burden on family law litigants can be hard. There are a couple ways to ease this burden.

First, if you are the party receiving support, or if your opponent is causing you to come to court unnecessarily or too frequently, you can ask the court for your opponent to pay some or all of your fees. You can also take advantage of unbundling, which is a different way of handling the attorney-client relationship. You pay your attorney for specific tasks or advice as opposed to the attorney taking over your case. This is what the McPherson Law Group is all about. This gives you much more control over your case and is easier on your pocketbook. Finally, there are all kinds of resources at low or no cost, including county resources (such as classes or facilitators at the court house) and consumer resources (such as books or online help).