Bay Area Divorce Lawyer Blog

The State of California operates under a community property regime in which assets and debts derived from the efforts or actions of either spouse during the course of a marriage are considered joint property to be divided equally between the spouses in the event of divorce. In In re Marriage of Rynda, the California Court of Appeals for the First District explains what happens to community property when one of the divorcing spouses also files for bankruptcy.

dollar-2-1003609-m.jpgCarolina and David were married in January 1996. The couple worked together as owners of a small insurance company until Carolina filed for divorce more than eight years later. A superior court dissolved the marriage in May 2005 and ordered that all community property – including the business – be divided equally among the former spouses. When Carolina filed for bankruptcy in 2009, however, the court ordered that all valuations of the couple’s assets for the purpose of dividing it between them be halted until the bankruptcy proceedings were completed. A bankruptcy court-appointed trustee later sold much of the property. That included Carolina’s stock in the company, which the trustee sold to David.

Back in the superior court, Carolina filed a motion claiming that she was entitled to a 50 percent ownership interest in the business and to be compensated for the community debts that were extinguished during the bankruptcy process. She also argued that there remained community property from the marriage for the superior court to divide. The court disagreed. “[T]he bankruptcy court has superior jurisdiction to the superior court,” the judge said. “And if the bankruptcy court divided your businesses or sold them, then they’re done with them. I can’t do anything about that.”

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So, sadly I was in court recently for what I hope will be my last litigation matter ever. Both clients and attorneys waited for nearly three hours because we were called last, a process that costs most clients a great deal of money for little to no effort on the part of the attorney except that I was helping my client at no cost. One more example of how divorce litigation costs can spiral out of control.

So we sat for three hours watching the other matters. One couple and their attorneys came before the judge and said they had reached an agreement on child custody and visitation where the eldest boy would live primarily with the Dad and the two younger kids would stay with the mum, but the parents lived in different towns about 2-3 hours apart.

The mom explained cogently and with heartfelt emotion why they felt this was in the best interest of the children and their family. The dad agreed. The judge, however, had other ideas and decided that she, someone who does not know this family from a hole in the ground, would supplant their thoughtful decisions with her own and rejected their agreement.

Generally, separating children is not considered an optimal solution, but there is no right answer and no perfect arrangement for every family. But, absent abuse or neglect, every family should have the right to make these decisions for themselves. This family had clearly given considerable thought to their circumstances and had good reasons for their decision. And, moreover, the parents had worked through and resolved their own conflicts, so that the children would not be subjected to the anxiety and trauma that is experienced with parental conflict over custody and visitation.

It is outrageous, in my opinion, that the opinions of a disinterested third party should supplant the thoughtful decisions of caring and committed parents. In retrospect I wish I had had the presence of mind to follow the couple out of the court room and tell them to forget the judge, to tell them that they can make their own decisions. The parents could easily have filed a judgment or an order that would have enabled them to co-parent in accordance with their family’s needs and that satisfied the court.

So, if you don’t want a black robed politician making important, intimate decisions about your life, don’t go to court- mediate, collaborate, whatever it takes, stay in charge of your life, be the master of your own destiny and make your own decisions.

Resolve conflict out of court and just say no to state interference in your personal life.

With offices throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Collaborative divorce attorney and mediator Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve many family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.

 

A person seeking to increase or decrease spousal support payments in California generally has to show that the circumstances have significantly changed since the support award was initially ordered. In a recent case, the state’s Third District Court of Appeals explained that a court can’t modify a support award if it doesn’t know how the first court originally determined the award amount.

indian-money-4-1400712-mHusband and Wife separated some time before 2008, the year in which they went to trial on various issues related to their divorce, one of them being spousal support. Husband filed documentation indicating that his monthly income was roughly $34,000 in salary, wages, and bonuses, that his monthly expenses were just under $9,500, and that he owned real property worth about $450,000. Wife, on the other hand, said she was making about $8,300 per month and had more than $8,400 per month in expenses. She also stated that she owned about $700,000 in real estate.

A trial judge dissolved the marriage and ordered Husband to pay Wife spousal support on a sliding scale through 2023. Husband was ordered to pay Wife $3,000 per month and 30 percent of his annual bonus in the first five years, $2,000 per month and 20 percent of his annual bonus over the next five years, and $1,000 per month and 10 percent over the last five years.

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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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Sometimes courts get it wrong. If you’re unhappy with the outcome of a divorce case, you have the legal right to file an appeal. As California’s First District Court of Appeals recently explained in In re Marriage of Shimpi and Sonawane, however, a party filing an appeal bears the burden of providing a detailed record of the proceedings in order to show where the lower court made an error.

imperfection-961100-m.jpgHusband and Wife were married in January 2003, and Wife gave birth to their only child 11 months later. Wife filed for divorce in October 2008. In the litigation that followed, the spouses disputed the date on which they separated. Wife claimed that the separation date was Aug. 1, 2008, while Husband maintained that the separation actually happened in December 2006. Husband submitted a number of e-mail exchanges between the two spouses and family members, which the First District later said “reflect the demise of the parties’ relationship,” in support of his claim.

After a January 2013 hearing, however, a trial court ordered that the marriage be dissolved and set the separation date at Aug. 1, 2008, per Wife’s request. It also ordered Husband to pay nearly $550 in temporary spousal support and nearly $1,100 in child support. The spouses later agreed to a settlement during a mandatory conference.

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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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