California Divorce: 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 may want to consider consulting with a qualified, local divorce 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, and I ask for their information and documents before we meet, if appropriate, so I can review them in advance of our appointment.

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.

Ready to schedule a consultation? Contact us today!

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 precisely the 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 our approach: We ask for your story ahead of time (!) in the form of documents, email, faxes, a letter, etc., send & have you fill out the intake form in advance, and we spend 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?

How to save money in California divorce

Divorce can be very expensive.  Not only are you separating households, now working with the same funds but supporting two homes (and two rents/mortgages, two sets of utilities, expenses of duplicate furniture, etc…), but you may be taking time off work (unpaid, of course) for court hearings, spending money on filing fees, and – of course – hiring a lawyer.  And lawyers?  Can be very expensive.

I do what I can to keep the costs down for my divorcing clients, from offering flexible options for payment (no, not monthly payments but I generally try to “break down” the case into more financially-manageable pieces for the client), family law coaching, and divorce mediation, but the cost is not entirely under my control.  What my clients do – or don’t do – essentially drives the path and cost of the divorce.  So, regardless of whether you have an attorney or not, here are some ways to keep the costs of your divorce down:

  1. Manage your emotions.  Divorce is incredibly difficult even in the best of circumstances.  It is likely that you have some strong emotions around it.  But the court and legal process generally will not be concerned about these emotions, and the more  you bring them into your divorce, the more you will likely pay.  Whether it’s spending excessive time with your attorney discussing the emotional issues or pursuing a losing issue because of an emotional attachment, emotions can bankrupt you when they take center stage in your divorce.
  2. Get professional help. As a part of managing your emotions, get the support you need for them by finding qualified mental health professionals to help you through it.  Your lawyer, your family, and your friends will be a great support during this time, but do not mistake any of them as qualified advice helping you through the roller coaster of emotions in divorce.  Find a therapist if you need one.
  3. Get – and get rid of – qualified professional help when appropriate.  Hire professionals who are going to work with you, for you, and who are on the same page as you.  If you feel like your lawyer doesn’t care, or is gouging you, or won’t pay attention to you or return your calls, then get rid of him/her.  Your divorce is yours, and you should have legal counsel that you feel comfortable with, who understands what is important to you, and who is reasonable and professional about fees.  Same with your therapist.
  4. Play fair.  The court and legal process in California has no patience for bids for revenge.  Mud-slinging and nasty declarations for the purpose of hurting the other party can not only rebound and hurt you, but can cost you unbelievable amounts of money.  They also drag on the process, increase the hostility between you and your spouse, and ultimately hurt your children.

Does your California divorce attorney knows estate planning? How about your California estate planning attorney? Make sure they know family law, too

There is a great deal of overlap between estate planning and family law.  So much so that, if you’re seeking a lawyer in either area, you should make sure you have one with experience in the other area of law.

Take your divorce lawyer.  Why would knowledge of estate planning be important?  Well, for starters, your divorce is going to end at some point.  And because divorces often take much longer than we’d like, we are often exhausted after they’re done, and have no desire to do any other kind of planning or work on the whole divorce issue.  But once the divorce is done, this is when the really critical aspects of your financial life and future come into play.  You need to change your beneficiaries on your retirements and life insurance.  You need to change and update your will and estate plan, your powers of attorney, and the guardians for your children.  A divorce lawyer without estate planning experience is not necessarily going to make sure you’re properly advised on these issues.

Conversely, let’s look at your estate planning attorney.  First, in blended families (where one or both spouses have children from a prior relationship), there are specific estate planning issues that overlap with family law.  In addition, it’s important to know whether either of the spouses has separate property.  Separate property is property that either spouse owned prior to the marriage.  If either has separate property, then putting the property into the trust without a separate property agreement transforms the property into community property….and this could make the owner spouse quite upset should the couple eventually decide to divorce.

These are just a few of the small issues that overlap, and there are many more.  So many that it would be detrimental to you and your family – not to mention your financial future – to consult with an attorney who lacks knowledge and experience in one of these areas.

 

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.

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.

Make sure your California divorce attorney knows estate planning. And your California estate planning attorney? Make sure they know family law, too.

There is a great deal of overlap between estate planning and family law.  So much so that, if you’re seeking a lawyer in either area, you should make sure you have one with experience in the other area of law.

Take your divorce lawyer.  Why would knowledge of estate planning be important?  Well, for starters, your divorce is going to end at some point.  And because divorces often take much longer than we’d like, we are often exhausted after they’re done, and have no desire to do any other kind of planning or work on the whole divorce issue.  But once the divorce is done, this is when the really critical aspects of your financial life and future come into play.  You need to change your beneficiaries on your retirements and life insurance.  You need to change and update your will and estate plan, your powers of attorney, and the guardians for your children.  A divorce lawyer without estate planning experience is not necessarily going to make sure you’re properly advised on these issues.

Conversely, let’s look at your estate planning attorney.  First, in blended families (where one or both spouses have children from a prior relationship), there are specific estate planning issues that overlap with family law.  In addition, it’s important to know whether either of the spouses has separate property.  Separate property is property that either spouse owned prior to the marriage.  If either has separate property, then putting the property into the trust without a separate property agreement transforms the property into community property….and this could make the owner spouse quite upset should the couple eventually decide to divorce.

These are just a few of the small issues that overlap, and there are many more.  So many that it would be detrimental to you and your family – not to mention your financial future – to consult with an attorney who lacks knowledge and experience in one of these areas.

Getting a divorce in California? Here’s how to decide if you need a lawyer

Making the decision to get a divorce can be very difficult, but once the decision has been made, deciding whether you can do it on your own or if you need an attorney can be nearly as difficult.  How do you find someone? How do you know if they’re any good? What is it going to cost? These are all important concerns that can make the process of hiring an attorney – or even just interviewing one – difficult. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Determine if you can do it on your own. You and your ex getting along?  That’s a good first step.  Do some research and see if it looks like something you can figure out by yourself, or if it seems so complicated that you need help.
  2. Ask friends and family members if they know someone they can recommend.  If you get a recommendation, ask them why they are recommending that person – someone’s fabulous attorney could be your nightmare.
  3. Interview more than one attorney.  Attorneys vary widely in their approach, mannerisms, attitude, skill and professionalism.  Find someone who you think you can work with successfully.
  4. Consider alternative options, such as mediationor unbundled services. Some attorneys, like us, will give you help on only the issues you need & you can handle the rest. This can both bring down the cost and the hostility of the divorce.
  5. When you meet with an attorney, ask them questions about how they approach their cases, whether they have had cases like yours before, and what they will do to help you keep costs down.  Set the expectations up front so you both are clear.  Ask about how often and in what way you will communicate, too, so neither of you ends up frustrated later.

Need more help? You can use the link to the right to schedule an appointment online.

Getting divorced? How to avoid disaster by steering clear of these all-too-common mistakes

I’ve talked before about how divorce is nearly always much more expensive and time-consuming than you ever expect it to be – frequently many times more – and given tips on how to not only reduce this time and expense, but how to reduce the stress and toll the divorce process has on you and your children.  Particularly in California divorce, and divorce in the Bay Area, courts are overcrowded and lawyers expensive, so this problem is exacerbated.

There are things you can do to ease the process – for example, hiring an experienced attorney to help you – but there are also things you can do in your relationship with your ex that will make the process go more smoothly.  The marriage may be over, and even perhaps the friendship and trust that certainly existed at some point, but if you have children, there is still going to be a relationship of some sort, and what you say and do – how you conduct yourself – will have a large bearing on what the post-divorce relationship looks like.  Even if you don’t have children with your ex, you still have to maintain a relationship to get through the divorce process.  Here are some tips to help you through:

  1. Divorce is hard.  It’s hard on both of you.  Focusing on the reasons for the divorce or bringing up old arguments will do nothing but make it all worse.  The marriage is over, don’t dwell on these things.  If you have issues – anger, sadness, resentment – then work on them with a qualified therapist.  Don’t make it worse on you, your ex and your children by hanging on to issues that no longer matter.  One qualifier: if the issues you’re focused on involve concerns about your children (substance abuse, violence, neglect, for example), then these are relevant to the divorce case.  Never listening to you, not picking up socks, and that pesky affair are not generally going to be issues that move your case along.
  2. Make sure you know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.  Threatening to “take custody” or to quit your job to avoid child support or bad-mouthing your ex’s lawyer do nothing but make the emotions in your case escalate.  Yes, we all can say things we don’t mean when we’re angry.  All the more reason to think before speaking to your ex.  This is agreat articleabout the nasty things spouses say to each other in a divorce – and why they’re empty threats.
  3. This is an issue I’ve talked about before – as soon as you possibly can, start thinking of the divorce in business-like terms.  Once you decide to divorce, the court and legal process essentially strips all emotion out of the equation and gets to the business of dividing assets, determining appropriate support, and working out the child custody and child visitation schedule.  Try to look at the divorce as a business transaction, because that’s what the court is doing.  It’s the break-up of a family unit, so each side gets half of what’s in the family.  Removing your emotions in the court process (and keeping them reserved for therapy, for example) will help to move the process along because you will not be delaying the process on emotional grounds.
  4. One last tip for those working with legal professionals: refuse to work or stop working with someone who is making the process worse.  Unfortunately for you, lawyers benefit financially when cases take longer and are more acrimonious.  If your lawyer tells you to stop talking to your ex (saying all communication has to be through the lawyers) or discourages you from making a reasonable settlement in favor of an expensive trial, find someone else to work with.  You’ll all be better served in the long run.

Or, I suppose if you have endless funds, time and anger, you can do all of the above, fight for years, and make a few lawyers rich.  It happens, all too often.  Remember, you get to choose how your divorce proceeds.  Which will you choose?

So, your spouse has hired a lawyer in your California divorce. What do you do? How to negotiate with OPC (opposing counsel)

One of the most terrifying things you can experience in a divorce is coming into court, expecting the hearing to be between you and your spouse, and finding out that your spouse has hired an attorney.  It can be scary.  Lawyers vary, too, in how they deal with unrepresented litigants.  I am always polite but firm.  I know one attorney who is outright nasty, from calling the other party names to threatening them to yelling at them.  You can’t always expect that an attorney is going to be civil…or even professional, unfortunately.

So, what do you do?  First, if you find yourself in the situation, and you want to or think you can hire an attorney, ask the judge at your hearing to continue (postpone) the hearing so you don’ t have to go forward and get steamrolled by the attorney.  Then get thee some legal advice and/or a lawyer, ASAP!  Generally judges will allow unrepresented parties a break if blindsided by an attorney at a hearing.

Second, if you get an attorney or other help or not, make sure you learn as much as you can about your case and the law.  The more you know, the better decisions you’ll make and quite possibly, the less you’ll pay for your attorney. Third, remember that the attorney is getting paid to do a job, and is also a person as well as an attorney.  If the attorney is rude or says things you don’t like, it’s not because they have it out for you.  They’re doing their job.  They also may be a fantastic attorney, or they may not be so knowledgeable or experienced.  They may be having a bad day.  They may hate their client.  You just don’t know what’s going on in their head, but if you treat them like you would treat your ex (react emotionally, take offense to everything, or reject everything they say simply because they’re saying it), it’s not going to be productive.

Fourth, remember to keep your eye on the ball (and the bill!).  Don’t spend $1,000 on attorney fees over a $500 stereo.  If the other attorney has a reasonable proposal, don’t refuse to agree to it out of mistrust. I’ve had many clients insist that I draft settlement documents because they didn’t trust the other side.  In certain cases, this is appropriate since the other side might be sneaky. But in many cases, this just isn’t true and by having your own attorney prepare documents, you’re just upping the bill for yourself.

Finally, try to keep it together.  If you tend to be overly emotional, see a therapist.  Lawyers won’t help with this at all – they’re not trained for it and they’re much, much more expensive than a therapist.  As soon as you can and as much as you can, try to view the divorce as a business relationship breaking apart.  This is the way the court sees it, so the sooner you get on board, the better.  This may see impossible, but it can and should be done as it will be better for everyone.

Want more help? Use the link to the right to schedule an appointment online.