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Contempt in Family Law

family-law-brothers.jpgA family law contempt action can be a civil or criminal process which is used when one party is in violation of a court order. In the civil context, the goal of the action is to correct the problem, but if criminal contempt is pursued, the violating party pay be sentenced to five days in jail per violation. Family law orders are often ignored by one or both parties causing significant frustration for both sides throughout the case. It is an expensive and lengthy process to enforce court orders and the parties regularly end up disappointed by the court's treatment of the violations.

The word "contempt" is frequently used to describe one party's violation of a family law court order. For example, if one parent fails to make a court-ordered child support payment, the other parent might tell his or her lawyer that the supporting parent is in "contempt". However, despite his or her violation of a court order, a person is not in contempt of court until that finding has been made by a judge. Therefore, if you wish to pursue a contempt action, you will have to file that request with the court before the other party will actually be in "contempt". In addition, the general public is familiar with terms such as contempt. In a support case, the supported spouse may want to hire a lawyer to "contempt" the other side if he or she is not paying support.

family-law-contempt.JPGAlthough contempt is a common method of relief shown on television and in movies, it might not be the most practical in the family law area. Considering the child support example, sentencing a non-paying party to jail time might cause him or her to lose wages or even his or her employment. In family law, attorneys often caution clients not to "kill the goose that lays the golden egg". If the supporting spouse loses his or her job, he or she will be unable to pay support. This discussion also comes up in contentious divorce cases where a vindictive spouse may want to use information acquired during marriage to get the other party fired from his or her job. Unfortunately, an unemployed spouse cannot provide financial support to his or her former spouse and children.

The family code provides litigants with a myriad of options to enforce court orders, especially child support orders. It is advisable to consult with a certified family law specialist before filing an action for contempt. Such actions may cause more harm than good in your family law matter.

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Life Insurance and Support in Divorce

divorce-life-insurance.jpgAt the beginning of each divorce case, the parties always have questions regarding how the divorce will impact their daily lives, especially their finances. One of the biggest issues, and often most disputed, is support. The parties cannot plan for their separate futures until they know whether a support order will be made and the level of support which will be ordered. Once the parties have a support order or agreement they will next consider what that support amount is intended to cover? Will my spouse have to continue paying my health insurance? Will my spouse pay for our children's health insurance? Will my spouse pay for uncovered medical and dental expenses? Will my spouse pay for extracurricular activities? Will my spouse pay for childcare? Typically these are the main concerns for divorcing parties when discussing support issues. However, it is not uncommon for family law litigants and their attorneys to forget one important issue - support in the event of the death of the paying spouse.

Life insurance can be an uncomfortable topic of discussion; however, the issue of life insurance is an extremely important subject to include in divorce settlement negotiations. In the event that the parties cannot reach a full agreement regarding all issues, they can ask the court for orders. The court has jurisdiction to address the issue of life insurance and to make appropriate orders for the parties. In cases where child and/or spousal support amounts are relatively high, it is reasonable to consider insuring the paying spouse as a form of security for support. In high conflict cases the supporting spouse may be hesitant to agree that his or her former spouse will be the beneficiary of an insurance policy on the supporting spouse's life. The supporting spouse often says "I don't want to give my former spouse more incentive to kill me". This type of argument will not likely be given much weight by a family court judge.

divorce-insurance.jpgThrough agreement or court order, once the parties determine that the supporting spouse's life should be insured as security for support, the attorneys and clients should discuss the amount of policy and which party should be responsible for the premiums. In cases where the parties take out life insurance as security for child support, the supporting spouse may be ordered to pay the life insurance premiums in the form of additional child support. If available, the parties often agree that the supporting spouse shall maintain a currently existing life insurance policy. The total amount of insurance should be based on the monthly support obligation and the number of years support will likely be paid. Each case is unique; therefore, it is important to discuss the issue of life insurance as security for support with an experienced family law attorney.

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What Can You Learn From Looking at the Petition?

January 19, 2015

divorce-petition.jpgThe realm of family law, as is the case with pretty much all areas of law, is filled with lots of legal paperwork and legal jargon. Being able to understand and properly fill out the judicial council form is half of the battle for a layperson. These forms can provide you with a lot of information that will be helpful throughout your case. The divorce petition, for example, is one of the first forms filed in a family law action. Even without having a family law attorney to review and explain the form to you, you can easily learn a lot by yourself simply by taking a close look at the Petition from top to bottom.

The Petition (i.e. Form FL-100 on the top right corner) is a one page document (front and back) that you will receive when your spouse has filed for a divorce, separation or annulment. Beginning at the top left of the document, you can note whether your spouse has hired an attorney to represent himself/herself or if he/she is in pro per and intends on proceeding without legal representation. If your spouse has hired an attorney, the attorney's name, state bar number and address will appear in this box. You can then visit www.calbar.ca.gov to perform an attorney search or you can review various websites to get more information about the attorney that your spouse has hired.

Below the contact information section of the form, it will specify the address of the court. This will tell you where your case will be heard so you know whether you will have to drive to North County San Diego, downtown, East County, etc. to attend your court hearings.

Below your names, there is a box that indicates whether the Petition is for 1) Dissolution of Marriage, 2) Legal Separation or 3) Nullity of Marriage. This lets you know when your spouse actually wants a divorce or if he/she prefers to get a legal separation. If your spouse checked the Nullity of Marriage box then your spouse is contending that your marriage is not legally valid.

Under the section of "Statistical Facts" you can see what date your spouse is claiming is your date of separation. If you disagree, you can claim a different date of separation on your Response form. A family law attorney can help assist you in determining the appropriate date of separation to claim.

divorce-separation.jpgUnder Section 4 and Section 5 of the Petition your spouse should have listed all items that he/she contends are his/her separate property and which items are community property and subject to division by the court.

If your spouse has filed for either a dissolution of marriage or legal separation then he/she can either claim that the reason is because of irreconcilable difference or incurable insanity. This selection will be marked in Section 6 of the Petition. There are several reasons why a person can request a nullity of marriage. If your spouse is filing for nullity of marriage, his/her reasoning will be identified in Section 6 as well.

Section 7 of the Petition will give you an idea of what your spouse is requesting as far as custody of your children, if any, who will pay attorney fees and spousal support, etc. Please note that just because your spouse checks the box, does not mean that the court will order his request. Don't take these checked boxes at face value and remember that the law may not even support your spouse's requests.

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Divorce Myths and Urban Legends Debunked

divorce-myths.jpgAs a divorce attorney, most of my clients come to see me for the first time with some misconceptions regarding California family law and/or divorce procedures. When clients mention divorce to family and friends their loved ones often have some input and suggestions based on personal experience or "horror stories" they have heard. While they are well-intentioned, family and friends may not be completely on point with their legal advice. Below is a list of common divorce myths and urban legends that I often spend time debunking with my clients.

"Title of Property Controls": Some clients come into my office assured that if a bank account, house, or retirement account is in his or her name it is "their" asset and will not be divided with his or her spouse pursuant to the divorce. Wrong. While title of property can be relevant to determining whether the property is community (and will be divided equally by a court) or separate (and will be confirmed to the title holder), title is not dispositive to the characterization of property. As a general rule, all property acquired during marriage (except by gift, inheritance, or devise) is community property and subject to equal division. This means that even if title to a vehicle is held by one spouse, that vehicle will be subject to equalization if it was acquired during marriage with community funds.

divorce-myths-custody.jpg"The Mom Will Get Custody": As we have previously blogged, there are many misconceptions about the role of gender in family law, especially regarding custody and visitation. Pursuant to the California Family Code, it is in the best interest of the child(ren) to have frequent and continuous contact with both parents. Legally, there is no distinction between fathers and mothers as the preferable parents.

"Spousal Support and the 10 Year Mark": The myths and urban legends regarding spousal support (commonly referred to as "alimony") in California are plentiful and most of them relate to the ten (10) year mark of a marriage. Although the length of marriage is a consideration for the court when it determines the length of time a paying spouse is obligated to pay spousal support, there is no minimum length of marriage required to receive spousal support. In addition, the length of the marriage has little to no bearing on the amount of support ordered.

"I Do/Don't Have to Maintain My Spouse's Health Insurance": On the issue of health insurance clients tend to believe what they want to hear. The paying spouse believes that when he/she files for divorce he/she can cancel the health insurance of his/her spouse. In contrast, the supported spouse who is often carried on his/her spouse's health insurance policy believes his/her spouse should maintain this policy indefinitely. Upon filing for divorce/service of the Summons (depending on whether you are the Petitioner or Respondent), Standard Family Law Restraining Orders take effect which prohibit cancelation of a spouse's health insurance policy. In addition, upon divorce, a party cannot remain on his/her former spouse's health insurance policy absent COBRA coverage.

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Divorce for Men

divorce-for-men-001.jpgOne of the popular marketing strategies for family law firms throughout San Diego County is promoting "divorce for men". From billboards to newspaper ads and firm websites, many law firms advertise a focus on "husbands and fathers" and protecting their rights. "Men's rights" is an issue that many litigants associate with divorces, custody battles and domestic violence cases. However, is there really a different skill level involved when representing husbands and fathers or is this advertisement nothing more than a way to attract male clients?

It is a common belief that men walk into divorce court, a custody battle or a domestic violence restraining order hearing with the deck stacked against them. There is an assumption that men automatically will have to pay an exorbitant amount of money in support and/or to equalize property division. In addition, the general public assumes that the court tends to give women custody of minor children. With regard to domestic violence hearings, men assume that women are given the benefit of doubt and that restraining orders are granted more often than not. In reality, although a particular judge may have a bias against one gender or the other, the law makes it clear that men and women should be treated equally in divorce proceedings, custody hearings, or in domestic violence cases.

In San Diego divorces, support comes down to clear cut numbers. If a woman is the high income earner, she is legally obligated to pay child and/or spousal support if the circumstances permit. In addition, the same is true if a man is the high income earner. With regard to property division, under the law, all community property should be divided equally regardless of the sex of the parties. There is no differentiation between men and women with regard to support or property division in California divorce cases. Consideration of gender in making these determinations is an appealable offense.

Many of the stereotypes regarding favoritism towards women in custody and visitation cases stem from actual case law and statutes. In the past, it was permissible for courts to give preference to women in custody disputes. Today, it is improper for courts to make custody determinations on the basis of gender. Men and women are equal under the law with respect to the desirability of their role as parents. Often, the Court encourages children to spend time with both parents and to mend any broken relationships.

An overwhelming majority of domestic violence restraining orders are filed by women against men. However, that does not mean that a restraining order filed by a woman against a man is automatically granted and that men are disadvantaged. Statistically, women are more frequently the victims of domestic violence and men who are victims are less likely to report it than women. As a factual matter, most restraining orders are granted on a temporary basis until the matter is heard by the court and the accused is given the opportunity to present a defense. In San Diego, family court judges do not take the deprivation of a person's liberty lightly and require evidence of domestic violence before they will grant a permanent restraining order.
Considering that men and women are on a level playing field under the law, it seems that catering towards "men's rights" might be more of an advertising technique rather than a true skill set.

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VA Disability Compensation and Divorce in San Diego

October 14, 2014

VA-disability-compensation-001.JPGSan Diego is known for its large population of military members and their families. In the San Diego County there are 16 naval and military installations of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard. We at the Law Offices of Nancy J. Bickford are grateful for the countless sacrifices that our military men and women make. We understand that many military members receive injuries or disabilities (both mental and physical) as a result of their service, or have injuries that are made worse during service or training. In San Diego, when a veteran is going through the divorce process, he/she may be concerned about how much of his/her disability compensation from the Department of Veteran's Affairs will be lost due to property division, spousal support and child support obligations.

VA disability compensation is a monthly tax-free benefit that is meant to provide veterans and their families with reasonable and adequate compensation for such injuries or disabilities. The amount of the disability compensation that a veteran is eligible to receive depends of the seriousness of the disability and its effect of the veteran's ability to earn a living. VA disability compensation is not necessarily subject to the same rules of division in divorce as most other types of income or assets.

Division of Property
With regard to property division in a divorce, VA disability compensation is not considered an asset in divorce. Unlike military retirement benefits, which are considered a marital asset subject to division, the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act clearly exempts VA disability compensation from being treated as a marital asset subject to division upon divorce. This means that if a spouse establishes that a bank account contains only VA disability compensation then these funds would be awarded to the veteran as his/her separate property.

Spousal Support
When a Court calculates the amount of spousal support owed, typically all sources of income will be taken into account. Since VA disability compensation is nontaxable, not subject to claims of creditors and not community property subject to division, many veterans assume that their disability payments are untouchable for purposes of calculating spousal support. However, many state courts have held that VA disability compensation may be considered income for purposes of calculating a spousal support award.

Child Support
A family law judge has the right to consider VA disability compensation as income available for child support. Also, if the party fails to pay court ordered child support then the party's VA disability compensation may be garnished.

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My Child is 18 - Why Do I Have to Pay Child Support?

graduation-child-support.jpgIn California child support cases, the parties may be surprised to learn that a parent's duty to financially support his or her child may continue after the child becomes a legal adult at the age of eighteen (18). This idea is often confusing to the parties because child support is inextricably linked to the time the child spends with each parent. Generally, the more time the supporting parent spends with the child, the lower the child support amount will be. On the other hand, the lower the amount of time the supporting parent spends with the child, the higher the child support obligation will be.

Pursuant to Family Code section 3901, "the duty of support imposed by [Fam. Code ยง3900] continues as to an unmarried child who has attained the age of 18 years, is a full-time high school student, and who is not self-supporting, until the time the child completes the 12th grade or attains the age of 19 years, whichever occurs first". As stated in this code section, even if a child attains the age of 18 years, a parent will still be obligated to financially support the child until the child finishes high school. However, despite the ability of the family court to order child support, the court cannot make corresponding custody and visitation orders of an 18 year-old adult. Therefore, a parent may be ordered to pay child support for a child who is not required to spend specified time periods with either parent.

graduation-support.jpgConsidering the fact that timeshare with the children is such a major factor in calculating child support, parties are faced with a conundrum when one child requiring financial support is a legal adult and cannot be forced to comply with a custody and visitation order. In these cases, the court bases child support on actual timeshare instead of timeshare which is ordered pursuant to a custody and visitation agreement or order. This means that if the 18 year-old student does not want to spend time with the supporting parent, child support will be calculated with the supporting parent have minimal time with the child. As a result, the supporting parent's child support obligation will be higher than if the parties shared equal time with the child.

Cases where a child does not want to spend time with one or both parents are very difficult. If you feel like the relationship between your child and you and/or your former spouse is deteriorating, it is important to discuss your options with your divorce attorney to work towards repairing that important relationship before the child turns 18.

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Hague Convention - Return of Abducted Children

child-abduction.jpgMany countries, including the United States, have become members of the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention contains an Article on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Pursuant to the child abduction provisions, the court "shall order the return of a child forthwith" upon proper petition of the court if a child has been wrongfully removed from another country. This creates a nearly automatic return order for any children in the United States which have been wrongfully removed from other countries. However, there is one small catch. The provision ordering the immediate return of a child only applies if a petition requesting the return of the child has been made within one year of the child's wrongful removal.

The one-year period attached to the child abduction provision of the Hague Convention has caused a growing split between lower courts. Some courts held that the one-year period is tolled (essentially put on pause) when the abducting parent has concealed the location of the child. Other courts held that the Hague Convention does not contain a provision tolling the one-year period and therefore, courts cannot impose one. In March 2014, the United States Supreme Court handed down the deciding vote and determined that United States courts cannot toll the one-year period for parents to file a Hague petition requesting a child's immediate return.

The U.S. Supreme Court based its decision largely on an analysis of the best interest of the abducted children. The Court reasoned that, regardless of whether a child's whereabouts were concealed, the child would likely be settled in a new place after a year had passed. Ordering automatic return of the child would uproot him or her from his or her newly established life, which may be detrimental to the interests of the child. In addition, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that the drafters of the statute could have included exceptions to the one-year period but did not.

In a concurring opinion, one Supreme Court Justice pointed out that although U.S. courts cannot toll the one-year period, judges still have the ability to return the child after the one-year period. If the judge determines that the factors favoring the child's return outweigh the factors favoring the child being settled in a new home, the court may order the child returned. In addition, the court may take the concealment of the child into account when weighing all of the appropriate considerations. In sum, the Supreme Court's ruling does leave a loophole open for courts to order the return of child when it is in the child's best interest to do so.

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Keeping Kids a Top Priority During a Custody Fight

June 20, 2014

custody-dispute-001.jpgA custody battle is all about your children so your actions and behavior during the custody battle should also be all about the children and making sure that they are the top priority. Below are some tips for things to do or not do if you are fighting for custody of your child or children:

1) Do not discuss legal matters around your child. No matter how angry or upset you are with your spouse, your child is not the person you should be venting to about the divorce. Consider meeting with a therapist or at least save the divorce discussions for your adult friends.

2) Despite the anger and resentment you may have towards your soon to be ex-spouse, do your best to encourage your child to have a relationship with your soon to be ex-spouse. It's important for a child to have both a mother and father role model in his/her life.

3) Avoid separating your child from your soon to be ex-spouse's family members (i.e. grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.). Remember that just because you and your spouse have chosen to call it quits doesn't necessarily mean your child should have to forfeit his/her relationships with extended family members. Also, when you feel the urge to say something bad about your ex's family members, remember that even after the divorce your child will still be related to them even though you will not.

4) If you have been ordered to pay child support, do not withhold that support just to punish the other parent. By doing so, you will ultimately be punishing and deprived your child as child support is meant to help out with expenses related to the child.

5) Respect your spouse's privacy rights when your child is in his/her care. As much as you may want to snoop on your spouse and make sure that your kids are being taken care of, the more respect you show your spouse then more you will likely receive in return. Additionally, so long as your child is not in danger, avoid trying to control every move of what your child does while in the custody of your spouse.

6) Be open to the possibility that a 50/50 shared custody arrangement may not be in the best interest of your child. Keep your child's unique needs in mind. This is especially true if you have a special needs child who may not react well to change and different environments.

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The Role of 730 Evaluations in Family Court

May 14, 2014

child-custody-evaluation.jpgAt the heart of any divorce proceeding involving minor children should be the consideration of what is in the child's best interest. In high conflict cases, where the divorcing parents cannot come to a mutual agreement regarding the custody arrangement for their child or children, the court will need to get involved to determine the appropriate allocation of physical contact and decision making authority that each parent will have with the child. Often times, in order for the Judge to determine what is in the best interests of the child, he or she will need to order a Child Custody Evaluation.

In California, a Child Custody Evaluation is also often referred to as a "730 Evaluation" because California Evidence Code Section 730 permits the court to appoint one or more experts to investigate, render a report and testify as an expert in order to help the Judge determine what is in the best interest of the child. This type of forensic evaluation is much more extensive and formal than just a court-ordered custody investigation. Specifically, if there are concerns about mental health issues, child abuse, substance abuse, parenting practices that may have a negative impact on the child, move away cases, etc. a 730 Evaluation will likely be needed in order to get a thorough, objective and competent analysis of the parents and an assessment of what is in the best interests of the children.

child-custody-evaluation-woman.jpgQualified examiners include Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Psychiatrists and Psychologists. In California, the Judge typically selects the evaluator from an approved panel or a list submitted by the parties (so long as the recommended evaluator meets the list of criteria required). The evaluator will be required to act as a professional expert and must act as a neutral throughout the evaluation. 730 evaluations typically involve observations, review of documents and medical records, clinical interviews with the parents and children, and psychological assessments. Any formal psychological testing, however, must be completed by a trained psychologist. It usually takes at least three months to complete all of the necessary evaluations and to draft a detailed written report.

Since the Judge does not know the family personally, he or she will typically depend on the opinion of the expert to understand the parties and their nature of interaction with the child. Ultimately, the main focus of the Judge is to uncover what is the best interest of the child. Therefore, a 730 evaluation usually includes a written recommendation for what the evaluator believes, based on his or her expert opinion, is in the best interests of the child. While the evaluator does offer his or her input, the Judge is the one who ultimately makes the decision regarding child custody. But, the evaluator's recommendation is usually taken very seriously by the court who may give significant weight to the evaluator's recommendation. The evaluator may also be brought into court to further explain or defend his or her recommendations. In some situations the evaluator may even be ordered to conduct further studies of the issue at hand. In any case, 730 evaluations can play a big role in high conflict custody cases.

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Can a Child Sue for Child Support?

College-Student.jpgIn a recent controversial New Jersey case, Rachel Canning filed a lawsuit against her parents requesting child support. Canning, a high school senior, alleges her parents kicked her out of their house after she turned 18 years old. Through her attorney, Canning is requesting financial support and an order for her parents to pay her college tuition. Canning's parents dispute her allegations that she was forced out of their home and argue that Canning left home voluntarily. Apparently a dispute arose between Canning and her parents regarding the rules she should be required to follow while living at home. Essentially Canning is refusing to live at home with her parents who welcome her home but asking for her parents to pay for alternative living arrangements.

Canning is currently living with her best friend's family. Further, Canning's best friend's father is funding her lawsuit against her parents by paying for her attorney fees. The New Jersey judge assigned to the case held that Canning did not have the legal right to request support from her parents and denied her motion. Generally, in California, the custodial parent petition's the family court to request child support from the other parent. The recent New Jersey case is so controversial because an adult child is suing her parents for financial support in complete contrast to the traditional paradigm.

college-tuition.jpgIn California child support cases, many parents ask if they have a legal obligation to support their child financially after the child reaches the age of 18. Pursuant to the California Family Code, unless there is an agreement by the parties or an incapacitated adult child meeting various requirements, a parent's statutory duty to provide child support ends upon the child's marriage, death, emancipation, at age 19, or at age 18 and is not attending high school full time - whichever occurs first. This means that in some cases, a parent is obligated to support a child after that child reaches the age of majority (18) as long as the child is still a full-time high school student. The reason for this particular provision is that some children start school later than others or are held back a grade. In those cases, the child will graduate high school at age 19 rather than age 18.

It is important to note that there are a variety of cases and statues which specifically deal with the support of an adult child who suffers from an incapacitating disability. These are fact driven cases and should be handled by a Certified Family Law Specialist.

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I'm a Woman, I Won't Pay Child Support, Right?!

May 6, 2014

"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star, Brandi Glanville, shared with the world on twitter that her ex, Eddie Cibrian, who is now married to singer LeAnn Rimes, is allegedly asking her to pay child support for their two kids. But could this even be a possibility? Word on the street is that men are the only ones on the hook for child support after a divorce. Well, try again. Being a woman isn't the "easy card" out of paying child support.

women-child-support.jpgCalifornia divorce attorneys are actually seeing an increase in the number of women who are required to pay child support to their ex-husband. This growth represents an apparent reversal of traditional divorce roles and may seem shocking to some people. However, in the last few decades there has been a shift in society where we are seeing more women working, landing high-paying jobs and achieving great success in their careers. Consequently, more women are being labeled as the primary breadwinner in their marriages rather than their male counterpart. More fathers, on the other hand, are acting as the primary caretakers of the children. As a result, more women are financially exposed to be on the hook for child support if the marriage results in a divorce. Child support orders are reflecting these changes by showing an increase in women being ordered to pay child support.

So what exactly is child support? Child support is money that a court orders a parent to pay each month, which is intended to help cover the child's living expenses, including food, clothing, medical care, education, etc. In California, every parent has a duty to financially support his or her child. If the parents cannot agree on a child support amount, the court will make a child support order. In California, the court typically bases its decision on an established guideline calculation. In fact, Family Code Section 4052 provides that the court may only depart from the statewide uniform guideline under special circumstances.

women-owe-child-support.jpgCalifornia family courts consider two main factors when calculating child support: 1) the percentage of time the child spends with each parent (i.e. the "timeshare") and 2) each parent's income. However, there are many other factors that might impact the child support calculation. These include the number of children the parents have together, the tax filing status of each parent, health insurance expenses, mandatory retirement contributions or union dues, support of children from other relationships, and other costs. Consideration of all of these factors is not one-sided, in that they aren't only considered in favor of the mother. Rather, if the father is the custodial parent and the mother is the breadwinner, it is quite likely that the mother will be required to pay the father child support for the children.

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Will Siblings be Torn Apart in Custody Dispute?

May 2, 2014

siblings-split-by-divorce.jpgSibling relationships are often the longest and most important relationship a child will develop. But what happens to that relationship when siblings are torn apart as a result of two parents that can't get along and decide to divorce. In many divorces, custody disputes become very heated and in some extenuating circumstances, the result is that siblings are separated. This type of custody arrangement referred to as "split custody" (although not defined by the California Family Code) results in each parent being awarded custody of at least one child of the marriage at all times, meaning that the children will live separate and apart from his/her sibling. Sounds like a real life version of the movie, The Parent Trap, doesn't it?

Luckily, splitting siblings up between the divorcing parents is extremely rare. As would be expected, Courts generally believe that it is in the children's best interest to live with their siblings and not be split. Divorces are difficult enough on a child so separating them from their siblings is often considered to be too much of a change and detriment to the children on top of the divorce itself. California public policy provides that the bond between siblings should be preserved whenever possible. Parents should want to do everything they can to maintain that sibling relationship as well.

If fact, courts disfavor separating siblings so much that an order separating siblings between custodial households will typically be reversed because it is deemed detrimental to the children's best interests. Courts have argued that children should not be treated like another piece of community property to be divided equally for their parents' benefit. Rather, children have a right to the companionship of their siblings.

siblings-custody-dispute.jpgHowever, there are times when a "split custody" arrangement might appear to be a good idea for the children. For instance, there are some situations where the siblings are so combative and abusive to one another (perhaps as a result of one of the children having a mental health problem) that it would be toxic to keep them in the same household. Another situation is where there is conflict between a sibling and a parent such that it might make sense to place the children with the parent that he/she is less combative with. Or perhaps, one parent relocates and one of the children has more educational opportunities in the other state

Nonetheless, even where there may appear to be a compelling reason for splitting up the custody of siblings, it is not always the right solution. Rather, it is important to strongly consider the impact of sibling separation on all children involved and to preserve the sibling bond whenever possible.

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Sperm Donor on the Hook for Child Support?!

April 30, 2014

sperm-donor.jpgWhen you think of sperm donor, you typically think of someone whose involvement in the child's life doesn't extend beyond the act of assisting in the child's conception. This is usually the case for sperm donors as they typically waive all parental rights during the process. However, sperm donor William Moratto recently got pulled into a child support case and a Judge in Topeka, Kansas actually ended up ordering him to pay child support for the child, now 4 years old, that he helped to bring into this world!

Marotta had responded to a Craigslist ad from a couple requesting a "private" sperm donor. The artificial insemination process did not involve a licensed physician but the couple did present Marotta with a sperm donor contract, which Moratto believed was a valid agreement indicating his intention to cease any parental role following the donation. Little did Marotta know that his donation would later cause him be on the hook for thousands of dollars of child support.

sperm-donor-child-support.jpgMarotta argued that he was only a sperm donor and not a "parent" for purposes of barring his liability for child support. Unfortunately, the Judge found that Marotta's claim of being just a sperm donor was nullified because the state's statute specifically requires the donation to be made to a licensed physician if the donor wants to be treated as if he were not the birth father. Thus, the Kansas statutory bar to paternity could not be applied to Marotta as a defense against being subject to the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, including potential liability for child support. Would the same hold true in California? Like Kansas law, California Family Code Section 7613 also offers a statutory basis disqualifying a sperm donor from being subject to a child support obligation for the child he helped conceive. The California statute provides that "[t]he donor of semen provided to a licensed physician and surgeon or to a licensed sperm bank for use in assisted reproduction of a woman other than the donor's spouse is treated in law as if he were not the natural parent of a child thereby conceived, unless
otherwise agreed to in a writing signed by the donor and the woman prior to the conception of the child."

The Court further ruled that Marotta did not properly waive his rights as a parent despite the written agreement that he signed with the couple at the time of the donation. The Court reasoned that a parent cannot terminate parental rights by contract. Rather a termination of parental rights can only occur in one of three ways: 1) adjudication of child in need of care, 2) relinquishment and adoption or 3) a judicial finding that the parent is unfit to act as a parent. For information regarding when a parent in California is able to voluntarily terminate his/her parental rights, please see our webpage titled "Termination of Parental Rights".

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In What State Should I File my Custody Case?

custody-case-state.jpgJurisdiction is a complicated issue even for experienced attorneys. It is understandable that family law litigants are often unsure regarding where to file their case especially if the parties live in separate states or cities. In addition, jurisdiction may present a problem if one party would like to modify a previous custody and visitation order and neither party lives in the state which originally issued the order. In San Diego, the family court website will direct potential litigants to the particular family courthouse where a case should be filed. San Diego family court jurisdiction is divided by zip code of the filing party. This means that the filing party only needs to enter his or her zip code and the website will direct him or her to the correct courthouse. However, these web tools do not provide guidance for parties with complicated jurisdictional questions.

In general, before a court can exercise jurisdiction over a case (hear the matter) the court must determine it has subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over the parties. The subject matter jurisdiction requirement means that the particular court hearing the case must have the legal authority to hear that specific type of case. For example, a bankruptcy court will not entertain a divorce case and a criminal court will not make rulings in a bankruptcy case. In any custody case, family courts will have subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. Therefore, all requests for custody orders or a modification to a current order should be filed with a family court.

If the parents of a child live in separate states, the state where each parent resides will not likely have personal jurisdiction over the other parent. Personal jurisdiction requires one of the following: (1) living in the state with the intent to remain, (2) personal service while physically present in the state, (3) consent, (4) sufficient minimum contacts, (5) or pursuant to a long arm statue. Each of these methods of acquiring personal jurisdiction involves a complicated legal analysis and citation of legal authority not available to most family law litigants. Considering this requirement, it may seem impossible to get custody orders from a state if your co-parent does not live in the same state.

Fortunately, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA") provides clear authority for jurisdiction over custody matters. The UCCJEA states that a child's "home state" shall have exclusive and continuing jurisdiction for child custody litigation. A child's "home state" is defined as the state where the child has lived with a parent for at least six consecutive months prior to the commencement of the proceeding. If the child is younger than six months old, the "home state" is the state where the child has lived since birth. Therefore a custody case should be filed in the state where the child resides regardless if one parent lives out of state.

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