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California divorce courts often have to consider a range of complex issues, including the division of assets, custody of children, and spousal support. In a recent California spousal support case, one court had to consider whether a wife could sue for spousal support not only under state law, but also through an immigration form signed in connection with a spousal visa petition.

Wedding RingsThe Facts of the Case

The husband was a U.S. citizen, and his wife was a citizen of Fiji. In 2012, they were married in Fiji, and the husband filed a visa petition to bring his wife to the United States. As part of the petition, the husband signed a form I-864 affidavit of support. The form is meant to ensure that an immigrant does not become a public charge. In signing the form, the husband agreed to provide his wife with any support necessary to maintain her income at 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. The form also stated that if the husband did not provide her with sufficient support, the wife could sue him for that support.

The wife moved to the United States in 2013. According to the wife, the husband abused her and told her he wanted her to go back to Fiji. Later that year, the husband and wife went to Fiji, and according to the wife, her husband abandoned her there and tore her permanent resident stamp out of her passport. The wife obtained temporary travel documents from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji and returned to the United States on her own.

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An annulment is a legal term that means to declare something invalid. Thus, when a California marriage is annulled, it is as though the marriage never occurred. While annulments are rare under California law, the repercussions of an annulment can be great, so it is important for those in the process of a California separation to understand what an annulment is and what the consequences of an annulment are.

DivorceIn California, an annulment is only proper in limited circumstances. Some marriages are never valid, including those that are incestuous or bigamous. However, other marriages can be declared invalid by a court under certain circumstances, including when:

  • One or both of the spouses were not of the legal age to marry;
  • Either spouse was not of sound mind;
  • The marriage was based on some act of fraud regarding a matter that was material to the relationship; or
  • One of the spouses was forced into the marriage.

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Earlier this month, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District issued an interesting written opinion in a California spousal maintenance case in which the husband was seeking to terminate a court order that he pay spousal support based on a change in circumstances. The court rejected the husband’s request, however, since it determined that the husband’s transfer of his business to his new wife was done in an attempt to avoid paying spousal support. As a result, the husband was required to keep making spousal support payments into his retirement.

GavelThe Facts of the Case

In 2009, the husband and the wife divorced, and the husband was ordered to pay spousal maintenance payments in the amount of $9,500/month. That figure was later lowered by agreement to $4,000. In 2015, the husband sought to eliminate the payments altogether, claiming that his retirement constituted a change in circumstances.

Prior to his retirement, the husband, a retired police officer, ran a private investigation and security business. He paid himself a salary of approximately $50,000 annually, and the business generated an additional $220,000 in business income each year. The husband claimed that he had retired, and the business was now in the hands of his new spouse.

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of California issued a written opinion in a California property division case that required the court to determine if a life insurance policy purchased by the husband and naming the wife as the sole beneficiary should be considered communal property at a dissolution proceeding, or whether it was properly found to be the wife’s separate property. Ultimately, the court concluded that the insurance policy was communal property, and the court reversed the intermediate appellate court’s finding to the contrary.

CalculatorThe Facts of the Case

The husband and wife were separated in 2004 after 20 years of marriage. Prior to the couple’s separation, the husband purchased a $3.75 million life insurance policy, using communal funds from the couple’s joint bank account. Likewise, the policy premiums were also paid out of the couple’s joint bank account. The policy named the wife as the sole beneficiary.

At a dissolution proceeding, the wife wanted to have the insurance policy considered as her own separate policy. The testimony showed that the husband obtained the policy when he was in the hospital suffering from heart problems, that at the time he had no plans on separating from the wife, and that he put the policy in her name, assuming she would use the proceeds to take care of the couple’s three children. The trial court determined that the insurance policy was community property and ordered the husband to buy out the wife’s interest. The wife appealed, and the case was reversed by the intermediate appellate court, finding that the policy was the wife’s separate property. The husband appealed.

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Last month, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District issued a written opinion in an interesting family law case requiring the court to determine if a previous court order in a dissolution case finding that a couple was not legally married precluded litigation of whether the marriage existed in a subsequent nullity case. Ultimately, the court determined that since the two causes of action involve different primary rights, the previous court’s finding that no marriage existed did not prevent the wife from later seeking a nullity action.

CourtroomWhat Is Res Judicata?

Under the doctrine of res judicata, once a court decides an issue, that finding cannot be revisited in a subsequent case. There are two types of arguments that are precluded under the doctrine of res judicata, claim preclusion and issue preclusion. Claim preclusion prevents the same parties from relitigating a case once it has been decided. Issue preclusion prevents parties from relitigating the same issue in a subsequent case, as long as the parties are in privity.

The Facts of the Case

In 2014, the wife filed a dissolution action against the husband, claiming that the two were married in Mexico in 1989, citing irreconcilable differences. The husband claimed that the two were never married. After hearing the evidence, the court concluded that no valid marriage existed and dismissed the wife’s case.

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California child custody disputes often center on one parent’s word against the other parent’s word. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, the primary question in any custody case should be:  what’s in the best interest of the child?

tricycleMother and Father were married for more than two years before Father filed for divorce in 2013. They had two children – ages five and three – at the time. Mother explained to the family court hearing the case that the children had been living with her since the couple split a month earlier. She declined to provide the address, asserting that Father had been sexually abusive to her and physically abusive to the children. Father, on the other hand, claimed that Mother wrongly moved with the children to Texas without his permission. He said Mother was lashing out at him because she was fired from her job at a hospital after Father told the hospital he had found vials of drugs that she took from work.

A trial judge eventually held a hearing on the matter, in which both Father and Mother testified and presented witnesses to support their claims. A licensed clinical social worker who interviewed the parents, kids, and other witnesses recommended that Mother be granted full custody of the children. The social worker said Father was “manipulative.” Although the children had a good relationship with both parents, the social worker said the relationship was stronger with Mother. The social worker also said Mother moved the kids to Texas because she didn’t understand the law and made a mistake. The judge, however, came to a different conclusion. He found that Mother lied about the abuse allegations as an excuse for running off with the kids. As a result, the judge ordered that the children remain in California and that the parents continue to share custody.

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Timing can be very important in California divorce cases. In some situations, a party’s failure to raise an issue in a timely manner can preclude that party from seeking certain relief down the road. A recent appellate decision issued by California’s Fourth Appellate District illustrates the difficulties one spouse had in requesting that the court’s order requiring spousal support be retroactively applied as of the date of the dissolution.

marriage certificateThe Facts of the Case

In May 2014, a wife filed for dissolution of her 22-year-long marriage to her husband. When the wife filed the application for dissolution, she checked the box on the form indicating that she would be seeking spousal support. As is common in California divorce cases, the couple attended a mandatory settlement conference, where several issues were resolved; the issue of spousal support, however, was left for trial.

The wife filed a formal brief with the court, seeking permanent spousal support; however, nowhere in the brief did the wife request temporary support be ordered in the interim. In the following July, the parties agreed that the husband would pay $800 a month in spousal support to the wife. The agreement took effect on July 1, 2015, and it left open the issue of whether the spousal support order would be retroactive.

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A marital settlement agreement can be a great tool for divorcing spouses. These agreements let the spouses decide largely for themselves how their children will be cared for, how their property will be divided, and how issues like spousal support will be handled. It is important, however, for a divorcing spouse negotiating a settlement agreement to know what he or she is agreeing to do. As California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, you can’t get out of a settlement agreement later down the road simply because you’ve changed your mind.

signing agreementHusband and Wife separated in 2011, following some 14 years of marriage in which the couple had at least one child. Wife was working as a financial advisor at the time, while Husband was unemployed. They went through mediation and reached an agreement that Wife would get full custody of the child, and Husband would not be required to pay child support. In addition, Wife agreed to pay Husband a lump sum of $34,000 from a community property bank account in exchange for his pledge not to seek monthly spousal support. A trial judge later signed an order adopting the agreement.

Husband went back to court about a year later and told a judge he’d had a change of heart. He asked the judge to scrap the order, arguing that the agreement was unfair and one-sided. Husband explained that Wife handled the couple’s finances during the course of the marriage. He also said she concealed assets from him during the settlement discussions. The court agreed to reconsider the spousal support issue but otherwise said it would not revisit the agreement and order.

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California courts typically order one divorcing spouse to pay the other spouse alimony or spousal support in order to help the receiving spouse maintain a certain standard of living similar to that enjoyed during the marriage. Judges take a number of factors into account when considering a request to modify the amount of the support. As a recent case out of the Fourth District Court of Appeals shows, courts have the power to increase spousal support if the paying spouse fails to live up to other obligations.

moneyHusband and Wife separated in 2007, following a 17-year marriage in which the couple had a son. They reached an agreement the following year about how the spouses would divide their property, including a home in San Diego. Husband agreed to pay down a home equity line of credit on the property. Husband also agreed to pay Wife more than $2,100 per month in spousal support and more than $1,700 in child support.

Wife went back to court in 2015, however, asking among other requests that the judge increase the spousal support amount. She explained that Son had since reached the age of 18, and Husband was no longer paying child support. Wife also said that Husband had repeatedly failed to make required payments on the line of credit, which in turn had damaged her credit score. The trial judge agreed to increase the spousal support payments to $4,500 per month.

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Courts look at a number of factors when they decide whether to order one spouse to pay alimony or support to the other following a divorce. They also consider various factors when the paying spouse asks for the order to be changed or terminated. One of those factors is how long the spouses were married, California’s First District Court of Appeals recently explained.

money-607703-mHusband and Wife filed for divorce in 2000. A judge the following year awarded Wife physical custody of the couple’s two boys. The judge also ordered Husband to pay Wife more than $1,000 in child support and more than $400 in spousal support. That arrangement continued until 2004, when Husband took temporary physical custody of the children. The First District explained that Wife had been in a relationship that involved domestic abuse, which motivated the custody shift.

When Husband asked the court to give him custody of the kids, he also asked the judge to terminate his child support obligation. The judge granted the request temporarily. Husband and Wife eventually came up with a parenting plan under which the kids would remain with Husband and the parents would share legal custody. They also agreed to eventually share physical custody of the kids once Wife found a place to live in a “safe environment.” Wife had not regained custody of the children by the time Husband asked a court to terminate his spousal support obligation in 2014. The court granted that request.

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