Dissolution: issues in a California divorce

In every divorce (or dissolution) case, the court has a universe of issues it may resolve. The issues are common to most cases in that most cases have all of them, but some omit a couple. The issues are child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, property and debt division, attorney fees, and status. We’ll examine each of these in detail, but here’s an overview:

There are two aspects of the non-financial issues with your child (and I say child with the understanding that many folks have more than one child): 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.

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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California divorce terminology

I am often asked about the terms I use. Here’s a couple:

The term “Family Law” encompasses all kinds of cases, such as divorce, child custody and support, paternity cases, adoptions, domestic partnerships, guardianships, child support cases with the Department of Child Support Services, and modifications to existing orders.

The term “dissolution” is a fancy way of saying divorce. At some point, California decided that the word “divorce” was insufficient and that, for a divorce case, we would call it a “dissolution of marriage.”

“Spousal support” is also called alimony or “separate maintenance.”  While other states do, California does not distinguish between alimony and spousal support.  In California divorce, the term spousal support is the correct one.

Is alimony (spousal support) still relevant in California divorce?

In an interesting an enlightening new article on alimony, the author indicates that spousal support (alimony) should be based more on a case-by-case basis rather than an automatic award as it is in California.  She states that if both parties can support themselves, then there should be no spousal support. In the case of one spouse needing time to get into or back into a career (such as when one has been raising children), then spousal support is appropriate to help the supported spouse get into a career.

This sounds very fair, but I have two problems with it: First, it is hard to create a law around this proposal.  In California, spousal support generally lasts for half the length of the marriage and is intended to even out, as much as possible, the finances of the two parties. Second, in our economic environment, it is hard to make ends meet.  In a divorce, when the couple splits, generally one spouse moves out and in an instant the same amount of money – whether it’s one or two incomes – is supporting two households.  Two rents/mortgages, two sets of utilities, not to mention the initial financial requirement of getting into a home, buying furniture, dishes, etc.  When one spouse makes a great deal more than the other, or even a little bit more, it can be impossible, simply looking at the numbers, for the lower-earning spouse to make it.

I found it interesting that, in the article, the older individuals in the crowd were more in favor of spousal support than the younger.  I would agree that, in younger couples, there is less of a likelihood that one spouse is not working and stays home exclusively.  Many couples now share the parenting responsibilities as well as the financial responsibilities. It does seem unfair for one spouse to have to pay on an ongoing basis for the support of the spouse they are divorcing.  I know this because I have represented dozens and dozens of men and women who have had to pay spousal support.  There is almost always some kind of negative feeling attached to it. But until we have a way to better equalize the earning of couples, I think spousal support will remain.

Secrets of child and spousal support (alimony) in California divorce

One of the hot button issues in divorce is child and spousal support. It’s a hot button because it involves money, and money is a leading cause of divorce. Many couples are already tense about money, and when you add in the support issue, things can blow up. The problem is one of simple math:

With a married couple, you generally have one household surviving on the income of two parties. You take that household and divide it in two when the couple separates, and you have the same amount of money (not enough) now supporting two households instead of one. Ouch.

Regardless of who moves out and who is the spouse paying for child and/or spousal support, it hurts both parties. The one paying can see in his or her paycheck that the amount being brought home is, in some cases, actually smaller than the amount being paid for support. The one being paid just looks at the money coming in and the bills to be paid, and can’t quite see how to resolve the disparity.

Arguments, often heated ones, ensue. The key is to recognize that not only is this going to happen, but to catch it early and address it. It isn’t going to be easy for either of the spouses, and they had better be prepared. Both spouses, in most cases, are working hard to maintain their lives while they go through the difficult time, and a small amount of understanding goes a long way.

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

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! Takedetailed 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.

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

Emotions of child and spousal support – for recipient and payor

One of the hot button issues in divorce is child and spousal support. It’s a hot button because it involves money, and money is the leading cause of divorce. Many couples are already tense about money, and when you add in the support issue, things can blow up. The problem is one of simple math:

You have one household surviving on the income of two parties. You take that household and divide it in two when the couple separates, and you have the same amount of money (not enough) now supporting two households instead of one. Ouch.

Regardless of who moves out and who is the spouse paying for child and/or spousal support, it hurts both parties. The one paying can see in his or her paycheck that the amount being brought home is, in some cases, actually smaller than the amount being paid for support. The one being paid just looks at the money coming in and the bills to be paid, and can’t quite see how to resolve the disparity.

Arguments, often heated ones, ensue. The key is to recognize that not only is this going to happen, but to catch it early and address it. It isn’t going to be easy for either of the spouses, and they had better be prepared. Both spouses, in most cases, are working hard to maintain their lives while they go through the difficult time, and a small amount of understanding goes a long way.

Life Insurance and its potential role in California divorce

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce, behind the extreme emotional roller coaster, is the financial aspect. There’s never enough money to go around, and frequently both parties feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. The reality is that this is just the way it goes when you try to create two households out of one with the same amount of money coming in each month. One associated problem is that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend past a child’s 18th birthday (child support can go on to age 19, but that’s another issue), so the court cannot make orders about who will pay for your children’s education past high school, and how. College costs for a child who is now a toddler are astronomical – somewhere around $250,000-300,000 depending on the school. If you and your ex-spouse do not agree on how you will pay for college, then perhaps it won’t be paid at all. This is where life insurance can come in. Either or both of you can obtain and pay for a policy that will help to fund your children’s education past high school. It’s not very expensive, particularly if the cost is shared, and your child will thank you for putting aside the anger and making a joint effort on behalf of his or her education.

One final note on making that agreement: ensure that you put down in writing (1) what schools the funds will be applicable to (full-time college, trade schools, etc.), (2) what the funds will pay for (just tuition or room and board or books and supplies, or all of the above), and (3) what cuts off the funds (i.e. not attending full-time or grades below a C average).

In addition, life insurance can be taken out on the party who is paying child or spousal support, in the event that the financially-providing party/parent passes.  With the life insurance, the child(ren) and ex-spouse are insured some financial security in the event one parent dies.