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! Takedetailednotes 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.

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.

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

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 Family Law Coaching 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).

Getting what you want in divorce: The case for coaching

I often say that, logistically-speaking, divorce is not especially difficult, but it’s different.  If we remove the emotional aspect and the conflict, preparing the paperwork and going through the process is not particularly complex.  But when you have a family, a career, and a life, it can be impossible to take the time to learn the ins and outs of divorce law and process. Unfortunately, too, there are too few resources available in California for individuals to work through the process on their own.

There are a great many good books on the subject, and Nolo Press (www.nolo.com) has a wonderful book, How to do your own divorce in California.  This is a great primer on the basics of California divorce.  Usually, however, every divorce, even the most amicable ones, have one or two unusual or sticky issues that do not fit into the basic divorce issues covered in this book.  What is an individual to do when he or she just wants specific advice on a specific issue?

Every county has some kind of free legal resources, generally through the courthouse.  Most often, though, these resources are not intended to help with legal advice or strategy, but rather are there to help you fill out forms. It can be frustrating to wait in line to get some advice, only to be told that advice is not offered.  Another option is to do a consultation with an attorney, but many attorneys will not give specific advice until hired. You may not need full representation for the advice you need, and – indeed – you may not have several thousand dollars to pay for the answer to (what you think is) a simple question!

The answer is family law coaching, which is a concept I created when I saw this gap in services for divorcing parties. I work with my clients in advance of even our first meeting, gathering both basic information as well as documents, history and questions that you are looking to answer.  Instead of spending our consultation time gathering information from you, I am spending this time answering your specific questions and giving you the legal advice you want and need. I met with a client over the weekend who had already seen three different divorce attorneys. Each of them wanted $2,600 or more to help him with his case.  What he wanted was advice and answers, which none of the prior attorneys had offered him.  When we met, I had already reviewed his prior custody order, his intake form, and his questions for our meeting.  We spent our time together going over the process and h0w to approach his pending motion preparation, mediation, and court hearing. I even helped him to fill out his forms during our meeting, so he left knowing the legal strategy with which to proceed, what forms to file and how, and how to be as successful as possible in his motion…all for the price of one consultation.  If you find yourself in a situation where you are looking for advice on a specific issue and can’t seem to find what you need, give me a call and we can talk to determine if I am the right person to help you.

4 reasons why waiting to hire a divorce attorney is a mistake you don’t want to make

Even if you haven’t filed paperwork with the court or even if you haven’t decided 100% that you want to get divorced, you should consult with an attorney.  When you consult with an attorney, there should be no obligation to hire them, and you should be able to come in and get the advice you need and your questions answered.  At least, when you visit my office, that’s what happens.  I even have my clients fill out a form that specifically asks them what questions they most want answered in the consultation.

Here are some of the reasons why consulting with an attorney before you file is a good idea:

  1. If you’ve not decided to divorce yet, you can then at least make an informed decision about what the process is like, the time it takes, the cost, and what you’re entitled to.  Relying on what your cousin Susie or your neighbor John got in his/her divorce will NOT help you.
  2. If you have decided to divorce, then you can make sure that you have all the information – documents, financial information, deeds, insurance documents, etc. – gathered together that you will need.  It only takes a flash of anger from your ex to make this information disappear once you’ve filed and served papers.
  3. You may make a mistake and not even know it.  On countless occasions I have had to unravel mistakes made by unrepresented clients or clients who have gone to a document preparer or a paralegal to file their paperwork.  It costs much more and takes a great deal of time to undo a mistake than it does to do it right the first time.
  4. Mistakes can happen in paperwork, and they can happen in court.  A trained and experienced lawyer is going to know how to act in court and in front of the judge, and if you do so improperly, then you can dig yourself into a hole that’s nearly impossible to get out of.  Your whole life is on the line: your children, your home, your income, your assets, and your future.  Isn’t that worth getting proper advice?

A divorce attorney consultation is a few hundred dollars that will serve you in the long run, and help you to avoid these costly mistakes.

Lawyer bait-and-switch? Why a free consultation isn’t really a consultation

Ever wonder why expensive lawyers offer free consultations?  Here’s a hint: because there’s not much ‘consulting’ going on.  When you go to see a lawyer, do you want advice, or do you want to waste an hour telling your story, just to find out the high cost of getting real advice?  Find out why, when you hire an attorney after they’ve given you no advice, you are really hiring without knowing (1) their approach to cases, (2) their attitude and general demeanor, (3) whether you will be comfortable working with them, and (4) whether they will work with you to get the result you want.  Want an alternative?  Check out why a Family Law Coach can be better than traditional representation.

Secrets of a divorce attorney: Why a free consultation isn’t worth the money

I came across an article recently that purported to give advice on how to select a divorce attorney.  One of the bits of advice was that most “reputable” attorneys will offer a free consultation.  I was stunned to hear this, as I think the precise opposite!  The free consultation from the divorce attorney is a loss leader, which means that it’s free because the attorney is looking for the potential client to pay the big bucks at the end of the consultation. In addition, the attorney doesn’t offer anything of value to the potential client during the free consultation.

Remember, you get what you pay for!

Many attorneys offer a free or reduced-cost consultation and the appointment goes like this: the potential client arrives and fills out some paperwork, finishing after about 10-15 minutes.  Then s/he waits another 5-10 minutes, so the actual appointment starts at least 15 minutes into the alloted “hour.”  The attorney, naturally, want to know what’s going on, so the potential client spends at least 20-30 minutes – often this is closer to 45 minutes – telling their “story” to the attorney.  So, at this point, it’s been 45 minutes to an hour, and the attorney has yet to *do* anything but sit and listen.  At the end of the consultation, the attorney says, well, yes. I can help you with that.  And the retainer will be $10,000.  Or $5,000.  Or $20,000.  So the potential client has paid nothing to get nothing but a very high retainer quote, and the client has (unless s/he has the money) wasted an hour or so of time.

Is that worth it?  Are these the practices of a “reputable” attorney?

A paid consultation can be more worthwhile, as they tend to be a little longer and involve more attorney advice and counsel.  Often, the intake sheet is sent in advance, and the “hour” spent is really an hour.

Another option is a Family Law Coach, who takes your story ahead of time (!) in the form of documents, email, faxes, a letter, etc., has the intake form completed in advance, and spends most of the full hour giving YOU real advice that you can use now.  Yes, the consultation costs, but you get what you pay for.

Which would you choose?