Bay Area Divorce Lawyer Blog

Under California’s community property system, any property obtained by one or both spouses during the course of a marriage and up until they separate is generally split evenly upon divorce. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, the value of community property is usually based on the property’s value at the time of a divorce trial, not the time of separation. That is, of course, unless the spouses agree to another valuation date.

calendar-1072482-mHusband and Wife separated in January 2012, after roughly 37 years of marriage. Ten months later, Husband stated in an income and expenses disclosure that he planned to close his accounting and financial services practice. The business had generated $115,000 to $140,000 in net profits per year over each of the previous three years. In 2014, he began winding up the practice, advising clients that he was retiring and that they would need to find a new accountant for the upcoming tax season.

A trial court denied Wife’s request to value the business based on what it was worth at the time the couple separated, rather than at the time of trial. Wife had sought this ruling because it was likely that the business would be worth significantly less by the time trial rolled around, given that Husband was winding down the practice and his clients were going elsewhere. The court said Family Code Section 2552 required it to assess the business’ value as of the date of the trial unless Wife showed that there was “good cause” to use another value date “in order to accomplish an equal division of the community estate of the parties in an equitable manner.” Here, it said Husband’s plan to retire was legitimate and did not seem designed to devalue the business for purposes of the divorce proceedings.

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If you’ve previously read this blog, you may already know that we generally advise divorcing spouses to avoid the court system as much as possible and to strongly consider alternatives to traditional divorce litigation, including mediation and collaborative divorce. A recent case out of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals is a good reminder of one of the major drawbacks of the traditional system:  the significant possibility for unreasonable delay and improper judgments.

courthouse-1330873-mIn this particular case, the spouses’ divorce was assigned to a court commissioner. Since the judiciary is flooded with work, the powers that be have devised a system in which non-judge commissioners act as “temporary judges” to hold hearings and render decisions in divorce and other matters. However, this particular commissioner was not qualified to render a decision.

Husband and Wife divorced in 2004 and entered into a marital settlement agreement in which the couple agreed to split child care and health care expenses for their children, and Husband pledged to pay child support on a sliding scale that eventually increased to more than $800 per month. In March 2011, the San Diego Department of Child Support Services levied money from Husband’s bank account for unpaid support and filed two motions against him:  one seeking to modify the payments and require Husband to look for a job and the other asking a court to determine the amount that he owed Wife in past due support payments.

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As a divorce lawyer and mediator, I often encounter people struggling with the decision of whether or not to divorce. Since I have no idea what is the right decision for anyone else, I often say that a decision to divorce will be made when the pain of staying is greater than the fear of leaving. That’s how it was for me anyway. It is always a good idea to keep working on a marriage if both are committed and invested and hopefully the effort will lead to a more joyful union. But sometimes it does not and divorce is the right choice. And the pain of leaving will pass. The pain of staying will not.

Here are a few reasons why, in some cases, divorce might be the right choice:

  1. Staying married is usually not better for the kids.

It just adds to the pain of those in an unhappy marriage to feel that divorce will harm the children. It is important to consider the children’s feelings, and to protect them from the harm of a high conflict divorce, and ensure that their relationships with both parents are nurtured and maintained. However, the idea that staying in a bad marriage is somehow better for kids is dubious. What is more harmful and even traumatizing is living in a home filled with negative emotion, tension, and conflict. If the marriage is unhappy and a thoughtful decision to end it is made, you are modeling for your children that they do not have to be passive participants in their own unhappiness. However, it is essential that the divorce not be a high conflict one since studies show that kids of high conflict divorce more likely to experience delinquent behavior, a reduction in ability to maintain supportive friendships and dating relationships and less trust in future spouse. A divorce process such as Collaborative or mediation can help couples resolve the issues in a positive, respectful and mutual way and protect the children from the conflict.

  1. Improved wellbeing.

Chronic marital distress, unhappiness and conflict can create a fight-or-flight state, where one may feel they are “walking on eggshells,’ fearful of saying anything for fear of adverse reactions. This can result in sleeping problems, unhealthy eating habits, abuse of anti-depressants, or other forms of self-medication. The toll that negative relationships can take on physical health should not be underestimated. Some research suggests that chronically negative or abusive relationships can shorten one’s lifespan. So, ending a toxic relationship may be the first step to improved physical, mental and emotional well-being.

  1. You may create the opportunity for more satisfying relationships in the future.

Sometimes working through a difficult marriage and developing greater self-awareness around what your role may have been can lead to a happier relationship in the future. If after thoughtful work on yourself and your own weaknesses, there is no progress in your marriage, then the longer you stay, the longer you deny yourself the possibility of romantic happiness. Instead of fearing facing the world alone, fear spending a lifetime in an unhappy relationship. Fear of being alone is not an adequate reason to stay in a marriage and actually increases the misery, as one feels trapped and powerless.

  1. The grief will pass.

For some who know they need and want a divorce, the fear of unbearable pain and loneliness keeps them stuck. As difficult as ending a relationship can be, however, many find that they learn something from the pain and find some personal growth in the process. For example, they become more connected with family and friends, or find more meaning from other relationships. And it is helpful to take time to grieve, to give yourself time to experience the loss and process the feelings around ending a significant relationship.

  1. Giving up the fantasy that things will improve can be liberating.

Many live for years with a hope that the relationship will improve. And hope is important, but without meaningful action, it is misguided. Although the hope for improvement can sometimes provide relief, in the long run it can lead to defeat and disappointment when things don’t improve. If you and your partner are not actively working to improve the marriage and there is no real improvement, and both are not equally committed to the work, then hoping for improvement may just leave you stuck in a very unhappy situation.

 

So, once that decision has been made the next decision is how to proceed. There are many decisions to make in a divorce – how to divide the marital assets and debts, how to co-parent the children, how to address issues of child and spousal support.

These are all important, but the most important decision, is what kind of process will be used to make these decisions. There are several ways to divorce – from the kitchen table, do it yourself variety, to mediation, Collaborative and litigated. A contentious, litigated divorce is nearly always financially and emotionally toxic for all concerned. It is infinitely harder on the children that a respectful and thoughtful process, such as mediation or Collaborative divorce. Mediation and Collaborative divorces, on the other hand, allow couples to create an optimum outcome for the whole family and create a positive and respectful co-parenting agreement.

With offices throughout the Bay Area, California divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes approaches divorce cases as a problem to be solved, not a battle to be won. She handles each case personally, taking the time to understand each individual client’s needs and interests and explaining the various options for resolving these matters. Call us at (510) 795-6304 or contact us online to set up an appointment.

 

California law allows a family court judge to deny or reduce spousal support payments in a divorce case when the spouse requesting or receiving the support has been convicted of domestic violence against the other spouse during the last five years. The law, set out in Section 4325 of the California Court of Appeals, was enacted in January 2004. The state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained that the law can nevertheless be applied retroactively to cover domestic abuse convictions before the statute went into effect.

rings-1185863-m.jpgHusband filed for divorce from Wife in July 2002. He alleged at the time that Wife had physically and verbally abused him roughly 200 times over the course of their marriage, including by punching him, threatening him with knives, and trying to push him down a flight of stairs. Wife was charged with a crime following an incident in 2000, in which Husband said he awoke to find her yelling at him and brandishing two knives. Wife proceeded to stab holes into the waterbed in which Husband had been sleeping, according to a police report, and Husband was cut in a struggle for the knives.

Husband and Wife entered into an agreement in 2004, under which they settled various property distribution issues and in which Husband agreed to pay Wife monthly spousal support. The appeals court later recounted that Wife continued to pepper Husband with profane and threatening text messages following their divorce, and she also harassed Husband’s fiancé. She violated restraining orders obtained by both Husband and the fiancé, according to the Court.

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Decisions about whether and how much child support a divorcing spouse or co-parent should pay often depend on both how much money he or she makes or could make. The latter factor, usually referred to as “earning capacity,” can be difficult to quantify in many cases, and even more so when the parent’s immigration status prevents them from legally working. The state’s First District Court of Appeals recently considered one such case.

money-trap1-771882-m.jpgHusband filed for divorce from Wife in 2011, and the parties agreed the following year to a stipulation where Wife retained sole physical custody of the couple’s only child. The stipulation also gave Husband visitation rights but didn’t require him to pay child support. In 2013, Husband filed a motion seeking shared physical custody and for the Wife to pay him child support. Husband explained to the court that he was an undocumented immigrant who had overstayed his visa. Because of this status, Husband said he wasn’t able to work as a traditional employee. Nevertheless, he said that he’d worked as a carpenter for roughly 20 years and was planning to be a self-employed carpenter.

At the time, Husband said he was making about $750 per month. Opposing the child support request, Wife said the trial court should impute to him an income of $2,600 per week based on past earnings. She pointed to a 2011 income declaration in which Husband said he was making $65 an hour as a carpenter and working 40 hours per week. Instead, the court imputed a “minimum wage earning capacity” to Husband and awarded him 15 percent custody of the child. The court also ordered Wife to pay Husband $54 a month in child support. Husband appealed the decision.

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If you watch a lot of TV crime dramas, you may already be familiar with a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney, and, of course, the person’s right to be told that he or she is entitled to an attorney. In fact, the right to seek legal counsel is important in a wide variety of litigation contexts, including divorce and other related proceedings. In In re Marriage of Metzger, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explains that the right to counsel may also extend to a child who is the subject of a custody dispute among parents.

my-shadow-937478-m.jpgHusband and Wife were married in November 2003 and had a daughter, M, one year later. Wife filed a petition to dissolve the marriage in June 2009. Following a number of delays, extensions, and squabbles over depositions, and autism screenings for M, the trial court granted the dissolution and scheduled a separate trial on the issue of child custody in 2012.

Over Husband’s opposition, the lower court later issued an order appointing a lawyer to represent M in the proceedings and obligating Husband to advance $100,000 for the attorney’s retainer, an amount the trial judge said should ultimately be reimbursed from the spouses’ community property. The trial court said the move was justified by Wife’s concerns about whether the child might be autistic. Husband had previously dismissed the concerns as delay tactics, while Wife argued that M showed some signs of developmental delay. The trial judge said M was caught in the middle of the debate and “needs someone to speak for her.”

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Celebrities: they’re just like us, well sort of anyway. Among other things, that means that they often encounter the same types of issues as regular folks in divorce cases.

microphone-1382165-m.jpgCalifornia is a community property state, in which property acquired by a spouse during the marriage, except for gifts or inheritance, is shared equally between the spouses in the event of divorce. That might seem like a pretty clear-cut rule, but divorcing spouses often resort to the courts to decide disputes over how certain property should be characterized or divided. The California Supreme Court recently took on the issue as it applies to a life insurance policy taken out by one spouse – legendary singer Frankie Valli – for the benefits of the other.

Husband and Wife separated in September 2004 after 20 years of marriage. More than a year before, Husband used money from a joint bank account to purchase a $3.75 million life insurance policy. He named Wife as the sole owner and beneficiary of the policy and paid premiums with funds from the joint bank account.

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Anyone who has been through a divorce probably already knows that it can be a stressful, complicated, and emotionally and financially draining experience. The legal issues involved may be even more complex in situations where the couple work together running a business. In In re Marriage of Greaux and Mermin, California’s First District Court of Appeals explains that the spouse who is ultimately awarded the business has the right to protect it from being devalued by the other spouse. In some cases, that may include seeking a court order to stop the spouse from starting a competing business.

stapling-machine-1440644-m.jpgIn this case Wife filed for divorce in 2009. During the six-day trial that occurred two years later, one of the few remaining disputed and unresolved issues was what to do with the beverage company they owned and jointly operated during the marriage. The company distributed and sold a type of rum.

The business was community property and the judge determined that both spouses brought “unique talents to it.” Husband had little education, training, or experience running a business, but the judge said his considerable effort and determination were “crucial” to the business’ success. Husband also developed relationships with others in the industry whose experience and personal relationships were very helpful to the business. Wife, on the other hand, had marketing and sales skills also crucial to the business, and her family history in the Caribbean served as the “brand story.” The trial judge also noted that Wife had a deep understanding of the rum, its ingredients, and the process for making it, and had qualified as an official industry “taster.” She was designated in company investment materials as the “face of the brand.”

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Trust is the cornerstone of any marriage, and the lack of it permeates a great many divorces. In In re Marriage of Vazquez, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal explains that lying about income and other information in a divorce proceeding can be very costly.

the-truth-shall-make-you-free-1437041-m.jpgHusband and Wife divorced in 2008 and the court ordered Husband to pay Wife an unidentified amount of monthly child support. Wife returned to court four years later, however, arguing that Husband committed perjury by purposely misstating his monthly income.

During the 2008 proceedings, Husband asserted that he earned about $9,550 a month. Three years later, however, Wife obtained his 2008 income tax return while seeking an order to force him to contribute to their child’s orthodontic expenses. The trial court granted Wife’s motion to compel Husband to respond to a demand for inspection of documents relating to his finances, including the tax returns, which showed that Husband made nearly $21,000 a month in income during the time of the divorce. The trial court set aside its previous child support order and entered a new order requiring Husband to pay more in current child support as well as $25,000 in sanctions and more than $36,000 in attorney fees.

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San Ramon family law attorney, Mary Nolan, was recently sentenced to two years in federal prison for unlawful interception of telephone communications and tax evasion. Ms. Nolan illegally intercepted telephone conversations by accessing a listening device that now-imprisoned private investigator Christopher Butler had installed in a victim’s vehicle. Butler hired women to approach men at bars, drink with them and set them up for drunken-driving arrests that their wives could use against them in divorce cases. Two of the men whose wives were represented by Nolan have sued her, Butler and others for damages. Nolan also hid $1.8 million in income from the Internal Revenue Service to avoid paying $400,000 in taxes between 2005 and 2009, and admitted to obstructing justice by submitting false contracts to the IRS during an audit.

Mary Nolan was my opposing counsel, my client’s wife’s attorney, in my first divorce litigation. At the time I had no idea about her ethical challenges but I did know that she was not very nice. (That is very polite understatement.) So not surprisingly, given her apparent challenges with ethical behavior, the matter was a nightmare for my client and me. Rather than trying to help the clients work out reasonable solutions for a negotiated settlement, she engaged in abusive discovery and trumped up domestic violence allegations in order to reduce my client’s time with his children and more child support for her client. Essentially, she did everything she could to destroy, rather than helping to restructure the family. After several months of this nightmare I told my client that if he was going to survive with this ogre on the other side he needed to fire me and retain a seasoned and aggressive litigator. And I told myself that if I was going to survive in this business that I needed to find another way to practice law.

And that is exactly what I did. I found Collaborative law and mediation and learned that there is another way, a far superior way, and never looked back. Now I offer divorcing couples alternatives to the court system, Collaborative Law and Mediation, to help them create positive, mutual agreements and divorce without the emotional and financial costs of litigation.

It is nowhere near as lucrative as Ms. Nolan’s nefarious law practice, but it feels good to help people solve their problems, rather than helping to destroy their families.