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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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Spousal support (or alimony) is meant to help one spouse maintain a certain level of financial stability after a divorce. In other words, the monthly payments are intended to help the person keep something close to the standard of living that the spouses enjoyed during the marriage. The payments are not necessarily open ended, however. A person who receives spousal support is supposed to make reasonable efforts to become self-supporting, usually by getting a job. But what happens when the person has a medical condition that prevents them from working? That question was recently before the Second District Court of Appeals.

Husband and Wife were married for some 16 years and had three kids before separating in October 2002. They reached a stipulated agreement three years later, under which Wife got sole legal and physical custody over the children. Husband agreed to pay Wife $3,000 per month in child support and another $1,000 in monthly spousal support. The agreement provided that Husband would make the spousal support payments until June 2012, but it stated that the court handling the divorce proceedings could extend that date if needed. As part of the judgment implementing the agreement, the court noted that Wife was expected to return to the workforce – she had a degree in nursing – after “a period of re-training.”money

The trouble, according to the Second District, was that Wife’s job skills were outdated, and she had a difficult time working and raising the kids. She then suffered an undisclosed medical impairment that required surgery and hospitalization. Although Wife was cleared to work in January 2012, she became unable to work again just a month later. Husband and Wife agreed that Husband would increase the spousal support to $1,200 and extend it for another five years. Wife later asked the court to increase the payments to more than $3,800 per month and to extend the support period even further. The trial court declined.

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It’s important for spouses getting divorced to understand that the process is a legal matter that happens through the court system. As a recent case out of California’s Sixth District makes clear, judges take that process seriously. They’re not likely to take kindly to a spouse who disregards orders and tries to subvert the process.

houseHusband and Wife divorced in 2007, roughly two years after the couple first filed to dissolve their marriage. In the following year, a court found that the couple’s family home should be treated as community property and ordered that it be sold. California law generally treats any property obtained by one spouse during the course of a marriage as community property to be divided evenly in the event of divorce. In many cases, that means that the spouses must sell the property and divide the proceeds.

The court also hit Wife with more than $100,000 in sanctions for her “failure to cooperate in the disposition of the family residence, the principal asset of this community.” When the house still wasn’t sold in 2012, a judge again ordered Wife to help facilitate the sale. By that time, however, she had already transferred the property to an LLC owned by Wife and her new boyfriend. The company issued an eviction notice to Husband. It later filed paperwork listing Husband and Wife’s son as the company’s CEO.

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California courts look at a number of factors in deciding whether to award spousal support in a divorce case. These include the ability of the spouse seeking support to make money and become self-supporting. A court has to find that the circumstances have sufficiently changed in order to alter the spousal support award later down the road. As a recent case out of California’s Second District Court of Appeals shows, the fact that the receiving spouse is now getting money from other sources – like a pension or Social Security benefits – may not be enough.

dollar billHusband and Wife were married for some 24 years before a court granted their divorce in 2009. Husband was making about $7,000 per month at the time, while Wife – who had not worked since the couple got married – had no income. A judge ordered Husband to pay Wife $1,700 in spousal support. Husband also paid Wife $125,000 for her share of the family home, which he kept. Wife later moved to Miami, where she said she wasn’t able to find work.

Husband went back to court about five years later and asked a judge to eliminate his spousal support obligation. He explained that Wife was now eligible to receive payments from two of his pensions and would soon be eligible for Social Security benefits. He also argued that Wife hadn’t made a reasonable effort to find work. Wife later acknowledged that she was receiving about $1,800 per month in pension payments and Social Security benefits. She asserted, however, that she couldn’t find a job because she had been out of the workforce for some three decades, had a third-grade education, and was not a fluent English speaker.

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California law empowers courts in divorce cases to order that one spouse pay the other monthly support. These support awards are designed to help the spouse receiving them meet monthly expenses and maintain a standard of living similar to the one enjoyed by the spouses during the marriage. As a recent case out of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals makes clear, courts have a fair amount of power to decide where to set the support level and whether or not to change it down the road.

dollar signHusband and Wife separated in 2009, following some 18 years of marriage. The couple had two children, who were adults by the time the Fourth District took up the case. A trial judge granting their divorce ordered Husband to pay Wife more than $2,700 in spousal support per month and to maintain a $400,000 life insurance policy payable to Wife in the event of his death. The court further explained that Wife was expected to become self-supporting as soon as possible.

Husband later went back to court and convinced the judge to reduce the support award to about $2,000 per month. The judge also decreased the required life insurance coverage to $250,000. That was largely because Wife had become fully employed and was receiving nearly $800 per month in Husband’s pension benefits. The court declined, however, to further reduce the support and insurance requirement based on Husband’s claim that he’d been making payments on his daughter’s student loans. Wife asserted that it was Daughter who was paying some $300 per month on the loans.

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