What is bifurcation and how can it simplify my family law case?

Bifurcation is an often underutilized procedure in civil cases (including family law cases) that, if used correctly, can significantly reduce the attorney fees and costs necessary to bring a case to a conclusion and can significantly increase the prospect of settlement.

So what is bifurcation exactly? In the process of bifurcation, the Court, usually on the motion of one of the parties, agrees to hear a trial on just one part of a case. Often times there are difficult issues, that once resolved, simplify the rest of the case.

An example of such an issue is the date of separation. The date of separation can have far-reaching implications on a case, even if the parties are just a few months, weeks, or days apart. For example, if one party received a huge bonus or won the lottery on a particular date, whether or not that windfall is community or separate property can depend on the date of separation. The length of spousal support is also strongly tied to the date of separation.  Once the date of separation issue is no longer an issue, it becomes much easier for the parties to reach settlement because the most difficult issue was just resolved.

Here are some other issues that are bifurcated in family law cases:

  • Trials on child custody and visitation. It can be wise to bifurcate these issues because child support and spousal support are affected by them and because the acrimony between the parents in most cases can be chalked up to their different views on custody and visitation.
  • The validity (or lack thereof) of premarital or postmarital agreements. The validity of these agreements must be bifurcated in family law cases because the rights of property and even support are determined by whether or not these agreements are valid.
  • The validity of the marriage itself. If a party is challenging the validity of the marriage itself i.e. they are claiming there was no valid marriage, such an issue should be resolved immediately. Why? Because, just like the example on premarital and postmarital agreements, the rights of property and support are determined by the validity of the marriage. An attorney in our firm once had a bifurcated trial on the validity of a marriage. After the Court agreed with us that the marriage should be annulled because the Wife committed immigration fraud, there was no need to visit the issues of attorney fees, support, or property division because the Wife had no right to them once the marriage was annulled.
  • The date the Court should value a business. In such cases, if a bifurcation on the date of valuation is not done, the parties would have to be prepared to litigate the value of a business on two different dates. That would require a lot more preparation, a lot more work for expensive experts, and generally a longer and more expensive trial. Resolving this issue early would avoid such a headache.

These are important issues that should probably be navigated with competent and experienced counsel.

Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding the bifurcation of any issues discussed above. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.




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