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California is a community property state. This means that in all California divorce cases, unless a specific statute says otherwise, all property acquired during the marriage is shared 50/50 by the couple, and it must be divided evenly.

Signed ContractThat being said, a recent California divorce case illustrates how a federal statute can supersede a family court order. In that case, the husband and wife agreed to an order requiring the husband to keep the wife listed as the beneficiary of the husband’s survivor and death benefits until another court order was agreed upon by them. The husband was an active duty service member at the time. Despite the order, six months later, the husband changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy to his sister. The husband was terminally ill and died eight months later. After the husband’s death, his sister received the proceeds of the policy.

The husband’s life insurance policy was issued under a federal law:  the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance Act of 1965 (SGLIA). The court found the SGLIA allowed the husband to change the beneficiary on his policy at any time without obtaining the wife’s consent or giving her notice. The court determined the SGLIA preempted state law. That is, although state law conflicted with federal law, the federal law prevailed. Since the SGLIA allows the service member to change the beneficiary “at any time and without the knowledge or consent of the previous beneficiary,” the husband had the right to change the beneficiary at any time, and the fact that the husband violated the order did not change the beneficiary of the policy.

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In a recent California child custody case, the court considered a military deployment presumption in California’s family code, clarifying how courts should interpret the statute.

Boarding the PlaneThe Facts of the Case

In that case, a couple married, had two children, and divorced four years later. The mother and father were both active service members in the Air Force. The parents were later stationed in different states and countries at various times. The children lived with the mother and then with the father. When the father was then deployed overseas, the mother was given temporary physical custody of the children, pursuant to Family Code Section 3047. When the father returned from his deployment, the case went to trial on the issue of the children’s custody.

After the trial, the judge said that based on the best interest of the children, the judge would have ruled that the mother be the primary custodial parent because the judge found the mother was more likely to cooperate and facilitate visits with the father. However, the court considered the military deployment presumption in California’s Family Code section 3047, and it found that the statute meant that the children would return to the father after he returned from deployment. The mother appealed.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court issued a written opinion in a California divorce case requiring the court to determine if the husband was responsible for half of the children’s medical expenses not covered by insurance. The court ultimately held that, pursuant to the agreement entered into between the husband and wife, the husband was responsible for half of the expenses. Furthermore, since the trial court awarded full custody over the children’s orthodontia care to the wife, the husband had no say in obtaining the care.

BracesThe Facts of the Case

The husband and wife were married in November 1996. They had two daughters during the marriage and filed for divorce in 2009. Both the husband and wife heavily litigated many issues during the divorce proceedings, and the overall environment was very contentious. Eventually, the husband was determined to have defrauded the wife, and a court ordered that he pay nearly $450,000 to the wife as a result. The agreement awarded joint legal custody to both parents and required the husband to pay child support and half of all medical expenses that were not covered by insurance. There was no order for spousal support.

At some point in the proceedings, the wife petitioned the court for sole legal custody because the husband was refusing to pay for the children’s orthodontia care. The trial court awarded the wife full authority over the children’s orthodontia care and ordered the husband to pay for half of the expenses not covered by insurance.

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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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