The role of mediation and its alternatives in contested child custody cases

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One of the most pressing concerns for any parent going through a divorce, legal separation, or break up is what will happen with the children.  Even in the most amicable of breakups numerous new challenges arise, including changes in housing, finances, scheduling, work, and many other areas of life, all of which must be considered and addressed to create a parenting plan in the children’s best interest.  In more contentious breakups there may be additional serious issues present such as neglect, abuse, addiction, as well as other serious concerns.

California Family Code §3170 requires that in any contested custody case that the parties first participate in mediation to attempt to resolve custody disputes with an agreement before the issues are tried in front of a judge.   This requirement is imposed under the belief that an agreement which the parties come up with themselves for their children is usually better and will be more successful in the long term than one imposed by the courts.  To assist the parties in working through these various difficult issues the mediation is conducted with the assistance of highly trained therapists who are familiar with the common issues that need to be addressed in custody disputes.

In some counties, commonly referred to as “recommending” counties the mediator has an additional role when the parties are unable to reach an agreement.  In these counties the mediator will present a written recommendation to the court regarding a parenting plan for the minor children.  In these counties the mediation process has increased significance as the mediator’s recommendations are often adopted in whole or in large part by the court.  Many local counties, including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties are recommending counties.  In other counties, the mediation process is entirely confidential and the mediator does not make recommendations to the judge if the parties are unable to reach an agreement.

All courts in California have an office called Family Court Services to provide mediation services to the parties in contested custody cases.  Most custody mediation is handled through these court offices that provide their mediation services at no cost to the parties.   As an alternative parties may request (either with an agreement or without) that the parties be referred to private Child Custody Recommending Counseling (CCRC) to assist parties in resolving contested custody issues and if needed, to investigate and prepare a recommendation to the court regarding custody.   This counseling is done by an experienced therapist within special training dealing with contested custody issues.  The expense of the private CCRC is paid by the parties, usually with the party who requested it advancing or paying 100% of the cost upfront with the court reserving the ability to divide the cost between the parties at a later date.  Due to limited resources in the office of Family Court Services, most mediation sessions last between 15 minutes to one hour, whereas when the case is set for private CCRC the parties will spend multiple hours with the counselor who will also invest time outside of these meetings investigating and preparing recommendations.  While it is not necessary or affordable for parties in all cases, private CCRC provides a valuable service to resolve difficult custody disputes.

If you are facing decisions regarding custody issues it is important that you contact an experience family law attorney who can advise you regarding your options and strategies to obtain a custody order in your children’s best interests.

Can the court include income of my new spouse in calculating child support?

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The fundamental purpose of child support in California is to ensure that the needs of children are provided for.  Under California law each parent has an obligation to financially support their children (Family Code §4053(b)).  Practically, the state has adopted a uniform guideline formula to calculate the amount of support that should be paid keeping in mind each parent’s obligation to support their child.  Simply speaking, the guideline formula calculates support based upon each parent’s income and the amount of time each parent has with her child.

To ensure that a child is supported, in the appropriate case the court may count a new spouse’s income in calculating support.  However, under the law a new spouses’ income should not be considered except in an extraordinary case (Family Code §4057.5(a)(1)).  The family code lists examples of these extraordinary cases, including when a parent “voluntarily or intentionally quits work or reduces income” or when a parent “intentionally remains unemployed or underemployed and relies on a subsequent spouse’s income” (Family Code §4057.5(b)).  The law recognizes that in this case it is appropriate to use a new spouse’s income to calculate support so that the entire burden for supporting a child does not fall on the parent who is still working.  (Marriage of Paulin (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1378, 1384, fn. 5).

It is important that if you are facing these issues that you contact an experienced family law attorney to ensure that child support is set in an amount that is fair and proper.

Can there be more than two parents under California Law?

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On October 4, 2013 Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 274 which enacted new statutory amendments to clarify that a child may have more than two parents in the appropriate circumstance.  This means that in certain circumstances more than two parties can have the rights to custody and visitation of a minor child, and that more than two parents may have the obligation to support a child.

The new law provides that a child may be found to have more than two parents if it would be detrimental to the child to recognize only two parents.  To determine whether there would be detriment to a child in this circumstance the court is called to consider various factors including whether a proposed third parent has met the physical needs of that child, whether they have met the psychological needs of a child for care and affection, and how long they have assumed that role, among other factors.

In addition to showing that there would be detriment to the child if there are only two parents, one of several existing statutory grounds to establish paternity will have to be proven as to the non-biological parent.  Some examples of these methods of establishing paternity are (1) being married to the mother of the child, (2) attempting to marry the mother of the child before or after the child’s birth, (3) or receiving that child into their home and holding it out as their own.

Demonstrating to a court that these facts exist can be complicated and may require expert testimony from child psychologists or other child custody professionals and will often have to be resolved with a trial or evidentiary hearing.  It is important if you are facing these complicated issues that you consult with a family law attorney right away to assist you in navigating these very tricky claims.

Am I entitled to part of the house that my spouse purchased prior to marriage?

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A common situation that comes up during a dissolution matter is dividing the equity in a house that was owned by one spouse prior to marriage. In most cases the non-owning spouse is entitled to receive a portion of the equity in the house. The general rule in California dissolutions is that all community property (property from the marriage) is to be divided equally. The complication in this situation is that at part of the loan was paid outside of the marriage and part was paid during the marriage. To make matters even more complicated, the value of homes generally fluctuate constantly throughout the parties marriage and the divorce process.

 

Two California cases (In Re Marriage of Moore and In Re Marriage of Marsden) have established a method for dealing with these issues. Simply put, the portion of the equity of the house which came from the marriage will be split equally and the portion of equity from before or after marriage belongs to the spouse who owns the property. To determine the correct apportionment of these two, the courts look to the value and loan balance at four different dates: (1) Date of Purchase, (2) Date of Marriage, (3) Date of Separation, and (4) Date of Trial. With this information correct percentage and values owed to each spouse can be determined.

 

Generally, the assistance of a real estate appraiser is required to determine these values. Further, close examination of the loan documentation is also required. If the house has been re-financed at any point in time, additional information and documentation has to be reviewed. In many cases, the parties can hire an agreed appraiser to determine these values and can agree to a fair buyout amount. In other cases the value may be contested and it may be necessary to have the court decide this value. Either way, it is important when dealing with this issue to contact a skilled attorney to assist you in navigating this complicated claim. You may contact our office to discuss this issue further with one of our attorneys.

Bankruptcy Concerns

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It is not uncommon for potential bankruptcy clients to come in for a consultation with their own pre-conceived ideas that are not always fact.  It is always our goal to get these concerns out in the open so we can try and relieve some of the burden  and get down to the facts. Below I have listed a few of the most widely held concerns that I have been asked about:

1)      That once a bankruptcy is filed, I can not keep any assets- that the home, cars and dog will have to go- this is not the case- actually, in most cases, we are able to protect all of the clients property and all of the debt is wiped out in the bankruptcy filing.

2)      That once a bankruptcy filing takes place that they will not be able to get any credit for next 7-10 years- not true- in many cases, once the bankruptcy has been completed and the debt discharged, most individuals receive offers of new credit right away- low balances to start, but generally decent interest rates- this allows individuals the ability to begin rebuilding their credit right away.

3)      That once a bankruptcy is filed, I can not keep my financed home or car(s)- also not true- as long as your payments are current on your financed assets,  you can keep them and continue to pay the lenders- this will allow the individual to continue rebuilding their credit post bankruptcy.

4)      That once a bankruptcy is filed, I will not be able to buy a house for 7-10 years- not true- it is a common rule of thumb that once a bankruptcy has been discharged, after two years, individuals would be eligible for FHA insured loans with competitive interest rates.

5)      That if an individual is married, they can only file bankruptcy if their spouse files- this is also not true- individuals have the right to file a bankruptcy singly even if they are married- community assets held by the married couple must be considered in the bankruptcy filing to ensure the assets are protected and then the individual can achieve debt relief. It is , in most cases, best to file jointly, but it possible for married individuals to file singly.

It is our goal at the Law Office of Thomas Hogan to get all the facts and concerns from our potential clients and do our very best to put them at ease during this difficult time- no one ever wants to have to proceed with a Bankruptcy filing, but in some cases it may very well be the best decision for getting a clean start.

My spouse had been staying at home with our children, but now they are older. Spouse works occasionally, but could do a full time job even though not physically handicapped. Does the spouse just get to stay home and not work? My income is not really big. Can the court impute minimum wage into the numbers to figure out alimony and child support?

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In the State of California, the courts may be able to impute minimum wage earning capacity to a parent, and it is up to that parent to prove why he/she may not be able to earn or get a minimum wage job. For example, if he/she has a disability, or lacks in education or skills, medical condition, etc. The reason for this is that both parents are required to give support to their children, regardless of whether one is acting as the primary caregiver or not. Read the rest of this entry »

Under the law, does my ex-wife deserve to get half of our properties and money? The divorce papers was signed 4 years ago and I never thought of the consequences of not fighting for the right to not give her anything even though she cheated on me, and abandoned me and our kids to be with the other man. Can I still do anything to change the division of our property?

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In cases involving judgment on the division of property in a marital dissolution proceeding where one party wishes to have any modification made, their remedy is a timely set-aside motion within 6 months after the judgment is made, as per CCP § 473(b). But if the 6-month time bar expires, they may find an equitable relief through Fam.C. § 2120 et seq which sets forth the strict grounds for a set aside motion, and time limits applicable (Fam. C. § 2122).

For modifications involving property division in a divorce, work with an experienced divorce lawyer for more information and proper guidance.

I married a woman who was still married but thought her divorce had been finalized, but was not. She is now working on that, but I believe that our marriage is invalid. I married another woman years later, feeling that I was an unattached man. Did I commit bigamy?

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In furtherance of the public policy that a person is presumed not to have committed bigamy, there is a rebuttable presumption that the second of two successive marriages is valid (i.e., that former marriage was legally terminated by death or marital status judgment). However, A subsequent marriage or domestic partnership is illegal and void from the beginning if either party has a spouse or domestic partner still living unless the former  marriage/domestic partnership was dissolved or adjudged a nullity before the date of the subsequent marriage/domestic partnership [Fam.C. § 2201(a)(1)].

Even though a void marriage or domestic partnership is technically nonexistent, a judgment of nullity is still advisable. The judgment will eliminate doubt as to the parties’ marital status (making the fact of invalidity a matter of public record); and will also conclusively determine the parties’ “marital” property and support rights.

Contact a lawyer who is an expert in divorce and annulment to be better informed and guided in matters regarding status of a previous marriage and the validity of a subsequent marriage.

How is child support calculated?

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This is a question I receive on a daily basis during my family law consultations. The quick and short answer is: child support is based on income and timeshare. For those individuals that have been through the child support process before, they understand the phrase “income and time” basically sum it up. However, for individuals that are new to this process there is a long answer. The long answer is that the court uses a program called a Dissomaster whereby the court takes each of the party’s incomes minus deductions, the number of children and the time spent by the noncustodial parent with each child, and plugs those numbers into the Dissomaster spreadsheet. The program then provides a support number to be paid for each child relevant to the current matter. Read the rest of this entry »

Why would my soon-to-be-ex-husband only file and Expense and Income Declaration and no response? Do you need to file a move away order in a true default case?

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Expense and Income Declaration is voluntary in default cases. If your case is a true default case, you may include a petition for move away in your petition after 30 days following the day you have served him the petition. Read the rest of this entry »