Your California divorce: My ex is crazy! How do I get the judge to see this?! Why doesn’t the court understand?!

So frequently I have someone come to me and tell me that their ex is crazy and they just can’t get the judge to see it and understand. They give me dozens of examples of what he or she has done, telling me that it’s just not fair that the judge doesn’t see it. In these cases, there’s generally a couple things going on that we have to keep in mind.

Before we start, however, keep in mind what the court experience is from the judge’s perspective. The judge:

  1. doesn’t know who is telling the truth. This may surprise you, but many people lie to the court, and we know it! We just can’t always tell who is the truthful one without evidence;
  2. (2) doesn’t know you. If you’re the most truth-telling truth teller in the world, the judge doesn’t know that – yep, you guessed it, without evidence;and
  3. (3) is trying to make the most reasonable decision possible given the circumstances and request(s) before the court, which means giving equal weight to what each person says (both truth-telling you and your lying liar ex) because that’s all they can do in a short hearing where they don’t know who is telling the truth and doesn’t have any outside information (filed documents are usually much like the spoken argument in court) about who you each are.

What this means is that you have to be careful when you’re trying to show any kind of instability or “craziness” in divorce court. You can do it, but there’s a bit of an art to it, and it’s easy to mess up and

First, the reality is that if your ex is crazy, then there’s a pretty high likelihood that the crazy behaviors spill over to you as well. Of course, your excuse is going to be that s/he makes me act crazy! And this may be the case, but from where the judge is sitting, it doesn’t matter. If you both are acting crazy, then the judge is not going to see a difference in the craziness.

Second, you have to learn how to back up your claims. If you say your ex is crazy and then give examples of the craziness that do not include hard, verifiable facts, then the judge won’t believe you. For example, if you say you showed up at the appointed time to pick up little Joey, and your ex wasn’t there, then your ex is going to be given the opportunity to respond. Your ex may say you were six hours late, didn’t show up at the right place, or showed up on a motorcycle and wanted to take little five year-old Joey away on it. You need substantiation. If your exchange spot is McDonald’s, go in and buy something and keep the time-stamped receipt. Take a picture of yourself in your car – time and date stamped – showing you were at your ex’s house at the appointed time. If you were ordered to contact a mediator or therapist or other professional and your ex won’t cooperate, then get an email showing YOUR contact and acknowledgement that your ex has failed to communicate. You have to give the judge something to go on.

Finally, you have to learn how to talk in court. Keep your emotions down. Stick to the facts. Do not engage in conversation with your ex – talk to the judge. Be respectful at all times, no matter what. If the judge is not hearing you, ask to be heard on an issue. Say thank you at the end, even if you’ve lost.

You have to gain credibility and use it, which can take time. You also have to distance yourself from the craziness so that you don’t get pulled into it.

How to file for divorce in California

In general, filing a family law case is fairly simple (legally-speaking. Emotionally? A totally different story). For a divorce or paternity case, the process is about the same. You need to file a Summons (different for each case), which basically just identifies you and your opponent and states that you are suing your opponent. With the Summons, you have to file a Petition (again, different for divorce and paternity), which is the ‘meat’ of the filing. The Petition specifies what’s going on and what you want, and defines the universe of options for your case.

For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, if you want to be able to get spousal support at any time during your case, you MUST mark that box in your Petition. If you don’t, then it comes off the table completely. You need to file your Petition correctly, and there can be tricky elements, but for the most part it is fairly simple.

Finally, if you have children, you need to file the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). This form sounds scarier than it is, as it’s simply where your child has lived for the last five years.

Of course, if you are asking for any orders, such as a custody or visitation order, child or spousal support, or anything else, you have to file other forms. But merely filing your case involves just these three forms: Summons, Petition, and UCCJEA.

Forms in California divorce: Navigating the document overload

Forms, forms, forms. The life of a family law litigant is filled with forms. The first thing you will file is your Summons and Petition, then every time you want something, you will have to file another form (or two or three). Completing your case involves even more forms.

The bad news? The forms are complicated, confusing, and far from user-friendly. One example is just the title. The title of the form, the name of it, is located at the bottom of it, which is probably the last place you’d look for a title.

More bad news? You MUST fill out your forms properly to (1) convey what you want, (2) get what you want, (3) have your documents accepted by the court (and not kicked back unfiled), and (4) complete your case properly.

The worst bad news? Filling out a form can be devastating to your case. For example, if you fail to make the box for “spousal support” on the Petition for divorce when you first file, then you can never ask for it. Ever. (OK so there are ways to amend your Petition, but this is not easy or common, and is far from guaranteed). So if you file and do not ask for spousal support, then your ex, three years later when you’re still fighting, wins the lottery just as you lose your job, you’re out of luck.

Redeeming news? There’s help out there, all over the place. You can even fill out the forms online here: CA Judicial Council Forms. Just be careful.

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Emotions in California divorce: Why managing them is critical

It is said that death, divorce, and moving are the three top stressors we can have in our life. There is no question that experiencing a family law case is stressful, difficult, and certainly emotional, sometimes extremely.

Many family law clients get a little confused at least once during their case – understandably so – and start to believe that their lawyer is also their therapist and general counsel on all things. While it is absolutely possible, and perhaps desirable, to get close to your family law counsel, you still have to draw the line.

Attorneys are not trained to counsel you on emotional issues. In fact, I counseled most of my clients that we needed to put the emotions aside and treat the case as much like a business transaction as possible.

Attorneys are also much more expensive than therapists, sometimes by three or four times. It is in your best interest to talk to a professional – a professional counselor – to help you with the emotional aspects of your family law case. Not only will your wallet benefit, but you will be able to deal with your case in a better way – which can also lead to better decisions.

Hiring a Lawyer in California divorce

Some people find it to be very scary to meet with a lawyer. A couple times, I met with potential clients who burst into tears when they came to my office. Some shook with nerves. The person you are meeting with should understand that the meeting itself is a little nerve-wracking, and do all they can to put you at ease.

If you’re meeting with one, hopefully any and all of your anxiety will disappear in the first few seconds of meeting with him/her. If not, then perhaps the person is not the one for you. Attorneys are people too (judges as well, but we’ll get to that later), and you won’t get along with or connect with every one. Some will have personalities or traits or mannerisms or ways of handling their cases that you just don’t like. That’s okay. Your case is YOURS, and you MUST feel comfortable with your representation. Each client is looking for something different. Some want an attorney who is more aggressive and some want one who is more compassionate. Some want – and need – more constant or regular contact, and some are more hands-off. Some want comprehensive control over their case, and some want to leave a lot up to the attorney.

There’s no right or wrong answer to these considerations, but you have to recognize that you do not have to go with the first attorney you meet. There are all kinds of options for you, from doing it yourself using do-it-yourself books, using your county’s resources (like classes, a family court facilitator, or a local “lawyers in the library” service), working with an attorney or coach on an as-needed basis, or hiring a lawyer. And if you decide to hire an attorney, it’s a good idea to shop around a little bit. At least talk to more than one so you can recognize differences in style.

The more you know, the better off you will be during your case.

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4 reasons why waiting to hire a California 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.

Is it helpful or harmful that your divorce lawyer knows your ex’s divorce lawyer?

Over the five years that I worked almost exclusively in Solano County, I got to know the other lawyers in that county quite well.  I knew who was a pushover, who was sharp as a tack, who would cave right before trial, who was sneaky, who I could trust, and who would mean the case would cost double or triple what I expected.  Often, my clients would ask about the other lawyer, and I would share what I knew.

Often, too, my clients would express dismay, frustration and sometimes even anger that I knew and was friendly with the other lawyer.  They thought it would make me “softer” and not fight as hard for them.  They thought my friendship came “above” my responsibilities to them as a client.  It’s unfortunate that I was unable to convince them of how very wrong they were.  I am not the only one who has experienced this, and this article describes well what I am explaining here.

First, they never understood that I take my job and my responsibility to vigorously advocate for my clients very seriously.  Regardless of who is opposing me, I am going to fight for my client in the same way.  I operate by acting in my client’s best interests, and we discuss our strategy before every case.  I will be more cautious when working with someone I can’t trust, but my behavior does not change markedly from case to case and client to client.  Obviously, when pushed I will push back and I can – and will – get down in the trenches and fight when appropriate.  But in many cases this is not necessary and serves only to escalate the cost of the case.

Second, by knowing my opposing counsel, I know what to expect from them, good or bad.  When it’s a friend of mine, I can expect that they won’t blindside me or screw me over.  That helps my client, helps the case, and keeps costs down.

Similarly, my friends trust me as well, so they are more likely to work more easily with me and, as a consequence, work with their client to make the case more reasonable.  In cases with lawyers I am friendly with, there’s more of an attitude of “trust but verify” – we can agree on things in principle, while proof is in process.  With other lawyers, we may need to more through expensive discovery before we can even sit down to start to discuss the issues.  While it may seem that time cools the fires of anger & resentment, it is often the opposite. The longer the case drags on, the harder it can be to settle.

So, which would you prefer?  I would want an attorney who knew my opposing counsel well, and was friendly with them.