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California divorce cases involve a wide range of rules about how, when, and where the case is litigated. These include limits on when a person can appeal a decision that he or she doesn’t like. If you don’t play by those rules, you risk harming or even losing your case. That’s the main takeaway from a recent decision by California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals. The Court said a former spouse who appeared to have evidence showing that she was entitled to part of the family home simply raised her arguments just a little too late.

houseHusband bought a house in Pasadena in 1997, about six years before he married Wife. When Wife and he divorced in 2011, a court awarded Husband the home as his sole property. As the Court explained, California law generally treats all property obtained by a spouse prior to a marriage as that spouse’s separate property. All assets gained by one or both spouses during the marriage, on the other hand, are considered community property to be split between the spouses in the event of a divorce.

Wife didn’t appeal the trial court’s decision within the proscribed time limits. Instead, she filed a request for relief from the court’s order, in which she argued that a hearing on the property issue had been fraudulent. The trial court denied the motion, and Wife appealed that decision. Wife presented for the first time on appeal a 2003 grant deed showing that Husband had transferred the house to Wife and himself as joint tenants. She said she didn’t realize that she was still a joint tenant on the property until after Husband died in 2014.

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If you want a court to change an existing child or spousal support award, you have to prove that there has been a change of circumstances to justify it. This means presenting real evidence to the court, as California’s Sixth District Court of Appeals recently explained.

gavelMother and Father separated in 2011, following more than 18 years of marriage. They had three minor children at the time. When the couple eventually divorced, they entered into a stipulated agreement providing that Father would pay Mother more than $4,000 per month in combined spousal and child support. The agreement stated that Father was making about $12,300 per month as a systems engineer, while Mother was earning about $600 a month as a part-time French instructor and tutor.

Father went back to court less than a year later, asking a judge to reduce his support obligation. He explained that he was losing his job, which had been a three-year assignment, and was looking for a new gig. Father also said he’d lost about $63,000 in stock market investments the previous year. The trial court responded by reducing his support obligations to zero, at least on a temporary basis, and said it would retain jurisdiction to reconsider if and when Husband found a job. The court ordered both parents to make good-faith efforts to find work and to notify each other within 48 hours of landing a job.

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One of the main purposes of alimony, or spousal support, is to help divorcing spouses continue to enjoy the standard of living that they had during the marriage. So it’s no surprise that courts try to gauge that standard of living when deciding whether and how much support to award. A recent case out of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals is an example of how judges make that determination.

dollar billHusband and Wife separated in 2005, following more than 16 years of marriage. The trial judge handling the divorce proceedings concluded that Husband and Wife had a working-class lifestyle during the course of the marriage. The court noted in particular that the couple owned a modest home, cars, and a truck and that Husband and Wife didn’t seem to do any extensive traveling or extravagant entertaining. The court also observed that Wife was bringing in a little more than $1,000 a month in her job as a day care instructor. She had some limits on her ability to work, however, due to a plate in her neck. Husband, on the other hand, was earning about $5,700 a month as a mechanic and owned a brownstone in New York that he’d inherited.

The trial court ultimately ordered Husband to pay Wife $1,000 a month in spousal support. It based that decision on the length of the marriage, the couple’s working-class lifestyle, and Wife’s limited ability to work. Affirming the decision on appeal, the Fourth District said the trial judge’s conclusions were supported by the evidence.

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Prenuptial agreements are effective legal tools that allow a couple to resolve certain issues before they get married. These include determining how property will be divided and how other issues will be handled in the event that they divorce. It is important to remember that these agreements are legally binding contracts that are generally enforceable later down the road. That’s the main takeaway from a recent case out of California’s First District Court of Appeals.

wedding ringHusband and Wife signed a prenuptial agreement shortly before they married in November 1990. Under the terms of the agreement, which they signed in Arizona, the couple pledged to treat all income and property obtained by one spouse during the marriage as separate property. That meant that each individual spouse would be entitled to all of that income and property in the event of a divorce.

Wife eventually filed for divorce in 2011, and a trial court found that the agreement was enforceable over Husband’s objection. It also denied his request for alimony and a separate request to be reimbursed for improvements that he started but didn’t finish on a home that Wife purchased.

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Settlement agreements are often an efficient way for spouses divorcing in California to resolve some of the issues related to the split without leaving them to the whims of a local judge. These agreements are binding, legal contracts that are treated by courts as such. That’s the main takeaway from a recent decision out of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals, in which the Court resolved a dispute over stock shares.

paperworkHusband filed for divorce from Wife in May 2010, following nearly 30 years of marriage. During a month-long trial, Husband argued that three transfers of stock from a company called AVD were gifts from his father that should be considered separate property. The trial judge appeared to be ready to side with Husband, but the parties reached a settlement agreement shortly before that ruling. Husband’s lawyer wrote out the initial agreement by hand. It stated that Wife would get 390,000 shares of AVD stock and that the remaining 884,000 shares would go to Husband.

When Wife said she couldn’t read the agreement, her lawyer wrote out a second version of the deal. The second stipulated agreement also allotted 390,000 shares to Wife but only 553,000 shares to Husband. A trial court eventually weighed in after a dispute over who would get the more than 300,000 shares unaccounted for in the second stipulation. It held that Wife was entitled to 390,000 shares and that the remaining 884,000 shares should go to Husband.

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Under California’s property division system, all of the property that a couple brings to a marriage is considered separate. That means the spouse who owns the property at the time of the marriage keeps the property in the event of divorce. The same goes for any property obtained using separate funds. All other property obtained during the course of the marriage, on the other hand, is community property to be split evenly upon divorce. So what happens when one spouse uses separate money to buy real property and then uses community funds to improve it? The state’s Sixth District Court of Appeals recently took on that issue.

wedding ringHusband and Wife separated in September 2008, following roughly 37 years of marriage. The couple purchased a home in Gilroy for $275,000 a year after they married, using $75,000 from Wife as a down payment. They also used Wife’s separate trust account for a $20,000 payment on the loan that they obtained for the rest of the purchase price. The couple later bought a parcel of land next to the property for another $64,000 from Wife’s separate money. They made various improvements to the land, including building a large home with a pool and basketball and tennis courts. They also remodeled the new home several times.

Both properties – collectively called “the Redwood Retreat Ranch” – remained in Wife’s name alone until 2005, when ownership was transferred to Husband and Wife jointly. During the divorce proceedings, the couple argued over the value of the property and the various improvements. A court heard testimony from several experts and eventually determined that the property was worth more than $5.4 million. The judge also said Wife adequately showed that she used separate money from her trust fund to pay for about 47 percent of the property through down payments and mortgage payments. The remaining 53 percent was community property, according to the court, to be split evenly among the spouses.

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What to do with the family house is one of the most common questions in California divorce cases. There are also a number of related issues to consider, including what to do when one spouse stays in the home after a couple splits but before they resolve how the property will be divided. As the state’s Third District Court of Appeals recently explained, the spouse who stays in the house might be responsible to pay fair market rent, and the spouse who leaves could be on the hook for mortgage and maintenance obligations.

houseHusband filed for divorce from Wife in Hawaii in 2005, and Wife filed a separate divorce action in California the following year. The couple had originally lived in Elk Grove, but they physically separated when Husband was moved around the country as part of his military service. Wife continued to live in their Elk Grove home after they officially separated in 2004. The Hawaii case was eventually dismissed, and the spouses entered into an agreement awarding the Elk Grove home to Wife in 2012.

The former couple asked a court to decide, however, whether Wife should be required to pay one-half of the house’s fair market rent (“Watts charges”) to Husband for the eight or so years that she lived there after they separated and before they entered into the agreement. It also asked the judge to determine whether Husband should reimburse Wife for half of the $72,000 that Wife said she sunk into the property in mortgage payments, maintenance, and repairs during the same time (“Epstein charges”). The judge ordered Husband to compensate Wife for the mortgage, maintenance, and repairs, but denied Husband’s request for rental value reimbursement.

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California’s community property system generally works like this. Any property that you bring with you to a marriage is separate, and any property obtained by you or your spouse during the marriage is community property. The second category of assets usually gets split evenly between the spouses in the event of a divorce. There are some situations, however, in which separate property may become community property. These include when spouses execute documents changing the legal ownership of a home, for instance.

house-1172352 (1)The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently explained that sometimes that type of change still isn’t enough. This case is also a good example of the perils that face a person who tries to navigate the divorce courts without the representation of an experienced family law lawyer.

Husband and Wife were married for only 11 months before separating in 2012. Husband, a military officer, was deployed for seven of those months. Husband filed for divorce in February 2012, asking a court to treat his savings account and a property in Temecula obtained before the marriage as his separate property. He explained that he’d executed a power of attorney in favor of Wife before shipping off from San Diego. Husband said Wife used that power to change the title to the property so that the residence was their joint property rather than his sole property. Husband also said Wife drained $20,000 from his bank account – money he had accumulated before the marriage – after she asked for a divorce.

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Spousal support, or alimony, is a monthly payment made by one divorcing spouse to the other in order to help the person maintain a certain level of financial security following a split. A judge considering a request for such support looks at a number of factors, including one spouse’s need and the other’s ability to pay. Judges also consider the standard of living during the marriage, how long the couple was married, and whether the person seeking support has made reasonable efforts to become self-sufficient. It’s that last factor on which the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District recently focused in a case stemming from a long-term marriage during which one spouse did not work.

new-5-1474097Husband and Wife had eight children over the course of a 25-year marriage before Husband filed for divorce in 2010. He was working as a doctor at the time. Wife, who was a nurse before the couple married, stayed home to care for the kids during the marriage. The spouses agreed on how they would split their property, and a trial court ordered Husband to temporarily pay Wife $5,000 per month in spousal support. The trial court later reduced that amount to $4,100. It also awarded Husband custody over the couple’s four minor children and ordered Wife to pay Husband more than $1,300 in child support.

Wife argued on appeal that the trial court failed to account for the long-term nature of the marriage in setting the spousal support award. The Fourth District disagreed. It said the trial court “fully acknowledged and considered [Wife]’s contributions to the parties’ long-term marriage and her disadvantage in the job market based on her marital contributions.” The trial court specifically found that Wife’s decision to stay at home had a “big impact” on her ability to work following the divorce.

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California law protects victims of domestic violence by allowing them to seek a restraining order against a spouse or family member who has been violent toward the person or threatens their physical safety. A domestic violence restraining order requires the offending spouse or family member to stay away from the victim for a certain time period. In order to get a DVRO, you need to file a petition in court. As a recent ruling from California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals makes clear, you also have to show up at the proceedings and present enough evidence to prove that the restraining order is warranted.

Wedding Rings

Photo: Wedding Rings by alisonjoy — sxc.hu

Wife filed for divorce from Husband in 2013, and she followed soon thereafter with a petition seeking a DVRO. She alleged in the petition that Husband had committed a number of violent acts against her over the years. A court in San Diego held a trial on the petition in early May, and it later continued the proceedings until later that month.

Wife was being cross examined by Husband’s attorney when the proceedings were paused in early May, but she didn’t show up when the proceedings resumed. Wife had asked in the interim to be allowed to appear by telephone, since she was living in Humboldt County at the time. The trial court declined, and it later rejected Wife’s motion to further continue the proceedings. Since she wasn’t there to complete the cross examination, the court also struck Wife’s testimony from the record. The court further found that Wife’s testimony wasn’t credible and said it believed she hadn’t told the truth on the witness stand. It noted that a child services mediator testified that she believed that Wife had sought the restraining order in an attempt to stop Husband from getting custody over the couple’s son. As a result, the court denied the DVRO petition.

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