Bay Area Divorce Lawyer Blog

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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“These are some of the dirtiest hands we have seen.”

nail-brush-2-340183-m.jpgCalifornia’s Second District Court of Appeals wasn’t talking about  in In re the Marriage of Boswell  was not referring to literal dirty hands, but about the family law doctrine of “unclean hands,” a principle that in this case cost a divorced spouse more than $92,000 in unpaid child support. As the Court explained, a person who has acted unethically can’t seek legal redress in a family law court for a situation that the unethical action helped create.

After Husband and Wife divorced in 1985, a trial judge awarded physical custody of the couple’s two children to Wife and ordered Husband to pay $70 per month in child support. Just two months after this ruling, according to the appeals court, Wife moved with the children out of California. She also changed their names and didn’t inform Husband of their new whereabouts. As a result, Husband didn’t see or communicate with the kids for 15 years. That changed when Wife suddenly sent the youngest child, then 16 years old, to live with his father.

In 2013, Wife sued Husband for arrearages on the child support, claiming that he owed her more than $92,000 in child support and interest that wasn’t paid after she skipped town with the kids. Both of the children were more than 30 years old at the time. Denying the claim, a trial court ruled that Wife was judicially estopped from seeking unpaid child support because she had “unclean hands.” Specifically, the trial judge said Wife had unjustly removed the children from their father’s life.

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As the Fourth District Court of Appeals explains in In re Marriage of Charles, community property,  including a couple’s shared interest in a business, is usually valued at a time as close as possible to the time of trial, unless there is a good reason for valuing the property at the time of the couple’s separation.

1399006__concept_of_a_cash_reg.jpg“The subtext of this date of business valuation case illustrates for family law practitioners in how a strategy can backfire,” the court warned in describing the case. As the court went on to explain, a spouse who doesn’t operate or manage a business owned by the couple often asks a reviewing court to value the company based on the date of the couple’s separation rather than the date of the legal marriage dissolution proceedings. This is because the “non-operating spouse” is typically concerned that the business’s value may diminish over time. The operating spouse, on the other hand, has no incentive to dial back the valuation date. “Time is on their side as value slip slides away,” the court wrote.

In this case, Mr. and Ms. Charles separated in May 2006, but trial in the dissolution proceedings did not begin until more than five years later in August 2011. At the time of the separation, a certified public accountant valued Genesis Associates – Mr. Charles’s design partnership – at $226,000. Three years later, the same CPA valued the business at $198,000. The business flourished following the second valuation, however, and by October 2010 was valued by the same CPA at $716,000.

As the court describes it, Mr. Charles sprung into action. He hired a new attorney and filed a motion in December 2010 asking the trial court to value the business as of the time of the couple’s separation. At this point, all discovery had been completed and a trial date set for February. The trial judge denied Mr. Charles’s motion as untimely, noting that Mr. Charles waited until shortly before trial to file it.

Based on expert opinion, the trial court found that the total value of Genesis Associates – as of the date of the trial – was about $1.8 million.

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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.