Under California’s community property system, courts treat all property obtained before divorcing spouses separate as community property to be split evenly among them. That often makes the separation date a hot-button topic. As California’s Fifth District Court of Appeals recently explained, the matter becomes more difficult to resolve in the common scenario in which spouses try to reconcile after an initial separation.
Wife filed for divorce in December 2000, after nearly 11 years of marriage to Husband. Both spouses were represented by attorneys in the two years’ worth of proceedings that followed. The parties later agreed on how their property would be divided, as well as on the custody and support of their children. They asked the court not to enter a ruling on the actual divorce, however, indicating that they were trying to reconcile the relationship.
Wife’s attorney submitted a “Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage” document to the trial court in late January 2002. The document laid out the terms of the couple’s agreement on property, custody, and other issues. It also stated that the couple had separated in December 2000. Although the trial court originally returned the document because it wasn’t signed by Husband and Wife, the trial judge later approved the document without the signatures. The judge retained jurisdiction to determine the status of the marriage if the reconciliation failed.
Wife sought to modify the judgment nearly eight years later, now represented by a new attorney. She explained that she and Husband had reconciled and lived together until February 2010. After additional litigation, the parties agreed to stipulate that their marriage terminated in May 2011. They couldn’t agree, however, as to when they were separated. Husband maintained that December 2000 was the separation date, while Wife claimed that the date should be much later because the couple had continued to live together.
The issue was significant because it would determine how much of Husband’s retirement benefits Wife was entitled to as community property: the later the separation date, the higher the amount of accrued benefits to be split evenly between the parties.
The trial court agreed with Husband, finding that the parties had agreed to the December 2000 separation date in the Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage agreement. The trial court noted that Wife’s first attorney said that he advised her that she would need to file a stipulation to set aside the judgment if she wished to remain married to Husband. She didn’t do so, according to the court.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Fifth District said that the fact that the document wasn’t signed by the parties wasn’t necessarily fatal to the court’s reliance on it. Instead, the appeals court said the trial court retained its jurisdiction to issue the judgment based on the document, even though the document itself didn’t comply with the requirements for a legal settlement codified in Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6.
“It is true that the trial court entered the stipulated judgment despite the lack of the parties’ signatures, contrary to the requirements of section 664.6,” the court said. “The trial court’s failure to comply with the statutory procedures of section 664.6, however, did not deprive it of jurisdiction.”
This case is yet another example of how important the separation date can be and how easily it can get muddled in the event that divorcing spouses attempt to reconcile. If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve separation date and other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408)297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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