Articles Posted in Mediation

In most divorce cases, the terms of any spousal or child support obligation are set forth in either a court order or an agreement between the parties. Often, that includes a stipulation that spousal support payments will stop when the person receiving them remarries or otherwise “cohabitates” with another person. In In re Marriage of Woillard, California’s Second District Court of Appeals makes clear that the term “cohabitation” is interpreted fairly broadly.

Husband and Wife divorced in 1990 after what the Court called a “lengthy” marriage. Under the terms of the divorce judgment, Husband was required to pay wife $4,000 a month in spousal support until Husband or Wife died or until she was remarried or began cohabitating with an “unrelated male.” In 2011, Husband filed an action seeking to terminate the spousal support payment, arguing that Wife had been cohabitating with her boyfriend, Keith, for the last six years. A trial court agreed, concluding that the spousal support agreement expired in 2005 and ordering Wife to pay Husband back $256,000 in support payments that she shouldn’t have received.

The Court noted that Wife and Keith were engaged in 2004, vacationed and attended family events together and “shared significant resources” through the course of their relationship, which began three years earlier. Wife loaned Keith $30,000 – an amount he later paid back – and he often stayed at her home, where he kept clothes and other personal belongings and received his mail. The couple kept a joint checking account related to expenses and rental income for two condominiums that Wife owned. They also jointly purchased a boat in 2005, securing a loan for it by using Wife’s home as collateral. Keith slept on the boat when he didn’t stay at Wife’s house.

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Bonuses are a common and often significant form of compensation for a number of people who live and work in California, particularly those in certain professional fields. In In re Marriage of Finby, the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explains that all or some of the money is likely to be deemed community property to be divided among spouses in the event of divorce.Husband and Wife married in 1985 and separated 15 years later in February 2010. Wife worked as a financial advisor during the course of the marriage and was employed by UBS before signing a contract with Wachovia in 2009. The company was later purchased by Wells Fargo.

Wife’s contract with Wells Fargo provided for a variety of bonuses, including a “transitional bonus” of more than $2.8 million. The bonus was premised on the fact that she had developed a list of clients – referred to as her “book of business” – whose investments were worth more than $192 million at the time and whose accounts were expected to go with her to the new job. Under the terms of the contract, the bonus was conditioned on Wife’s staying at Wells Fargo for more than 9 years and maintaining a gross production level of over $1.12 million, as determined on an annual basis. Wife opted to obtain the complete amount of the bonus immediately, however, and signed a loan agreement with her employer under which it agreed to forgive $27,700 each month over the course of 112 months. If Wife stopped working at any time during the period, the company had the right to demand the entire amount remaining on the bonus/loan.

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Even for happily married and intact families, the holidays can be fraught with conflict and compromise. But for divorced or separated parents and for blended families – the potential for conflict is much greater. Negotiating co-parenting agreements and sharing time with kids is rarely easy, but this is a time of year when it can be most difficult to let go because of the tradition and ritual around the holidays.

But for the sake of the kids you have to share it. And here are tips to
 help your holiday season be filled with merriment – not resentment.

Make a plan

 If you don’t already have a holiday schedule, and do it now, the earlier the better. You don’t want to create anxiety for the kids about what they’re going to be doing at Christmas. Sit down with your ex and a calendar to determine how you will share time. The plan can be fluid and can change, but a basic structure reduces miscommunication and sets expectations. Ideally, a vacation and holiday schedule will be part of a marital settlement agreement in a divorce. Think about the even year – odd year compromise. One parent gets first choice in even years and the other in odd years or simply switch the holiday time on an alternating year basis. For example, in even years one parent may have the children for Christmas Eve and morning, then take them to the other parent at noon. In odd years, the schedule would be reversed. It might also be worthwhile to review the kids Christmas presents together to avoid duplicate gifts and to ensure that similar amounts will be spent. For co-parents who live far away from each other it’s not so easy. If you have to be without your kids for the entire holiday make sure you can call and talk to them.

In California divorce cases, spouses often want to determine not only basic child support issues, but also how to cover future expenses related to their children’s higher education. In In re Marriage of Humphries, the Fourth District Court of Appeals addresses a dispute about college expenses.

The Humphries married in 1990 and had three children before separating 16 years later. Ms. Humphries obtained an emergency protective order against her husband under the Domestic Violence Protection Act in 2006. The couple later entered into an agreement in which Ms. Humphries agreed to drop the protective order and provide Mr. Humphries with child visitation rights. In turn, Mr. Humphries agreed that his wife and children would remain in the family’s residence and that he would pay various forms of support, as well as paying for the children’s private school education. Mr. Humphries further agreed for each child to “pay for four years of undergraduate education at a certified university of the child’s choice, at the rate of a school in the UC system in California” plus related expenses, provided that the child was a full-time student and maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average.

Ms. Humphries subsequently filed for divorce from her husband in 2008 and also sought an order requiring him to pay spousal and child support. The parties later entered a stipulated agreement providing that Mr. Humphries would “continue to support [Ms. Humphries] and the children.” Following additional litigation, they entered another agreement, this one stating that Ms. Humphries would be named joint custodian on three separate bank accounts – one for each child – and that the funds would be used to cover the children’s college tuition and expenses.

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My practice has been limited primarily to Collaborative Practice and Mediation for many years, since I learned long ago that divorce is a problem to be solved not a battle to be won, and the court system only exacerbates the problem and most often leaves couples worse off, financially and emotionally. Collaborative Practice and Mediation allow a couple to divorce in a structured and facilitated process that enables them to stay out of court, gather and review all of their financial information together, brainstorm options for property division, co-parenting and support, and craft an agreement that works for all. This process reduces the fear and anxiety because every step in the process is taken together and both understand that nothing will happen and no agreements will be signed or filed until both agree.

These processes are not without difficulty and conflict. The couples are divorcing after all so there is most always conflict. But unlike the court system with uncaring judges and litigious attorneys, Collaborative Divorce and mediation endeavor to help parties communicate more effectively, understand each other’s needs and interests, and help them find common ground and shared goals. This most always leads to agreement.

Another reason I value out of court processes is that I believe in personal empowerment and the right and ability of most everyone to make their own decisions in such matters. With very rare exceptions, I can’t think of any good reasons divorcing spouses would want a judge (ie government official) to make decisions about how they divide marital property or co-parent and support their children and each other. In most all cases, the best people to make these important and personal decisions, are the parties themselves.

“This case presents an issue that would vex Solomon himself.” That’s how the Fourth District Court of Appeals described In re Marriage of Keith, a child custody case that ultimately turned on the parents’ efforts (or lack thereof) to facilitate their daughter’s relationship with each other.Holly and Keith married in 2004, had a child (Daughter) in 2005 and separated a year later. Unbeknownst to Keith, Holly and Daughter then moved to Arizona. Holly also obtained a restraining order against Keith, accusing him of physical abuse. An Orange County court later order quashed the restraining order and required her to return to California.

Back in California, a court granted Holly a new restraining order against Keith as well as sole legal and physical custody of Daughter. Keith completed a court-ordered batterer’s intervention program and was permitted monitored visits with Daughter. After the couple divorced in 2008, Holly sought permission to move back to Arizona with Daughter. Keith opposed the move, claiming that Holly had sought to isolate him from Daughter and destroy their relationship, first by claiming that he had assaulted Holly, then by moving “surreptitiously” from Irvine to La Quinta and finally by seeking to move to Arizona.

In a child custody evaluation completed prior to trial, Dr. W. Russell Johnson recommended that Holly be granted primary physical custody – with Keith being granted “liberal” visitation rights – if she remained in California. If Holly were to move Arizona, however, Johnson concluded that Keith should be granted primary physical custody. In the latter situation, “[Daughter]’s best interests require that she be placed in her father’s physical custody because he is more likely than her mother to support her relationship with her non-residential parent,” Johnson determined. The trial court granted Keith primary physical custody.

The Fourth District affirmed the decision on appeal. The court explained that a trial court considering a custody issue has “the widest discretion to choose a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child,” but must weigh the health, safety, and welfare of the child, as well as any history of abuse by one parent of the other. Because Holly had obtained a restraining order against Keith, the court said that there was a presumption that granting her primary physical custody was in Daughter’s best interest. Keith rebutted this presumption, however, by showing that he had completed the batterer’s intervention program and had not been accused of physical violence since that time.

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As a new family law attorney my very first litigation matter involved a client whose spouse’s attorney was the (now disgraced) Mary Nolan. It was a horrific experience for me and I ultimately told my client that he needed to retain a different kind of attorney – the quintessential ‘shark’ litigator, if he was going to survive this divorce with Ms. Nolan on the other side. The great benefit that I derived from this experience is that I learned very early how ugly divorce could be, that the traditional process did not work for me or for the clients. I knew there had to be a better way.

A six-count indictment on September 18, 2012 charged Mary Nolan with tax evasion and unlawfully intercepting communications. Recently, Ms. Nolan pled not guilty to charges that she hired a private investigator, who was a central character in Contra Costa County’s “dirty DUI” scandal, to illegally install listening devices inside the car of a client’s ex-husband.

Mr. David Dutcher, from Contra Costa County, challenged a custody ruling he claims was based on a DUI charge that occurred after his ex-wife paid a blonde woman to trick into drunk driving. Mr. Dutcher said he was arrested and pulled over for drunken driving in 2008 shortly after he was propositioned by two young women to come home with them and ‘continue things in the hot tub’.

A judge from the state of Minnesota, Michael Haas, said the following in 2001.

“Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault.

No matter what you think of the other party – or whatever your family thinks of the other party- these children are one-half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an “idiot” his father is, or what a “fool” his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad.

A segment of This American Life with Ira Glass on NPR, entitled Breakup, addresses divorce from several different perspectives and is well worth a listen.

In Act Two, an eight-year-old girl embarks on a campaign to understand her parents’ divorce, a campaign that takes her to school guidance counselors, children’s book authors, and the mayor of New York City. The segment re-plays her 1986 interview on All Things Considered as a young child and how she struggled to understand why the divorce happened. In this interview 20 years later, she praises her mother for putting her daughter’s interest first by encouraging and supporting her relationship with her father, never blaming her father, and never saying anything about her father’s affair.

In Act Three, Ira speaks with a Collaborative Divorce attorney and Mediator about why it is so bad when the justice system gets involved in a divorce and the many benefits for families who can resolve the issues outside of court. The attorney speaks to the value of a process that focuses on listening to the other and seeking to understand.

“If ever there was a case where the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ applied, this is surely it,” Judge P.J . Moore recently wrote, introducing the matter of In re Marriage of Barth. As Moore went on to explain, California law allows a court to order a parent to pay retroactive child support going back to an original petition for divorce, even if it was filed in the wrong state.Jeffrey Barth spent years trying to avoid the enforcement of an Ohio court’s ruling granting wife Andrea Barth’s petition for divorce, custody and child support, only to have a California court grant similar petitions and order a substantially larger child custody payment.

The couple were married in 1989 and had two children. Ms. Barth filed for divorce in October 2004 after her husband admitted to extramarital affairs, according to the court. Following protracted litigation on the matter, an Ohio court awarded the divorce, granted Ms. Barth custody of the children and ordered Mr. Barth to pay $1,600 per month in child support.

Mr. Barth ultimately had the order overturned after the Ohio Supreme Court agreed that the state courts did not have jurisdiction over the matter because Ms. Barth had not lived in Ohio long enough before filing suit. Prior to the divorce, she left the state with her kids to join Mr. Barth in California, but returned shortly thereafter upon learning of her husband’s affair.

Litigation moved to California, where an Orange County court granted the divorce and ordered Mr. Barth to pay retroactive support of between $2,700 and $3,125 per month for 2004 to 2005, $7,645 per month for 2006 and between $1,000 and $3,050 per month for 2007.

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