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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers about California Family Law

September 22, 2012

image courtesy podpad

All questions below are answered according to California law:

Q: What is community property?

A: Community property means everything that a husband and wife own together, which generally includes money earned during the marriage and anything bought or acquired with the money that was earned during the marriage.  California is a community property state, which means that each spouse in a marriage has an equal interest in everything they own together, unless expressly titled otherwise by both parties.

Q: What is separate property?

A: Separate property means everything a husband and wife owns separately, which generally includes anything owned prior to their marriage to each other, anything earned or received after the date of their separation from each other, or anything received by either spouse as a gift or inheritance at any time.  (Note: gifts of “substantial” value given during the marriage can be considered community property.)  Just because a spouse places title of an asset in his or her sole name, does not make it the separate property of that spouse if it was purchased or acquired with community property money/earnings.

Q: What is the community liable for?

A: The community is generally liable for any debts that a husband and wife own together, which means any money that is still owed on any debts that either spouse took on during the marriage (even if the other spouse did not know about it in many circumstances).  So it is very important for both spouses to continue to be aware of what their respective assets and debts are at all times during the marriage.  Communication with each other is merely being a responsible partner.

Q:  What is the difference between a Legal Separation and a Dissolution?

A: A Legal Separation does not terminate a marriage; however it can settle financial responsibilities between spouses and to any minor children.  A Petition for Legal Separation is typically filed when either (1) spouses want to continue living together, but want to separate their finances; or (2) one spouse may need continued health insurance from the other spouse’s employer; or (3) simply when one spouse is not yet ready to file for divorce, but either needs to establish financial responsibilities and/or a temporary parenting plan or feels the need to send a message to the other spouse that the relationship needs serious help.

A Dissolution (the current term for divorce) is filed to ultimately terminate a marriage between two people, which can be accomplished in as early as six (6) months or can take years depending upon the parties’ actions and/or the Court’s calendar.  It is accomplished either by some form of settlement agreement or a trial, where a judge reviews the evidence and decides how the parties will divide their community assets and debts, what parenting plan is in the minor children’s best interests, and/or what is an appropriate amount of child and/or spousal support to be paid.

A Petition for Legal Separation can be amended to a Petition for Dissolution as long as no Judgment of Legal Separation has been obtained.  If a Judgment of Legal Separation is obtained, then the legal separation case is complete and a new case will have to be filed if either or both parties wish to obtain a divorce later on.

Alternatively, spouses may file a Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution if they have been married less than five (5) years, do not have any minor children, do not own any real property, own less than $25,000 in community assets, have less than $25,000 in separate property assets and less than $10,000 in community debts.  There are a few other requirements to file this type of petition, but a Petition for Summary Dissolution is essentially signed and filed by both spouses and unless an objection is filed by either spouse during the six (6) month waiting period, either or both spouses may file a Request for Entry of Judgment of Summary Dissolution six (6) months after the petition is filed and obtain their divorce without the need for any court appearance or further submission of documentation.  (By filing for divorce as a summary dissolution, both parties waive their right to a trial as well as their right to an appeal of the Judgment.)

Q:  How long does it take to get a divorce?

A:  The Court does not have the ability to grant a divorce until six (6) months after the initial Petition for Dissolution is filed with the Court and served on the other spouse.  Accordingly, spouses who are divorcing have the option to either (1) schedule a trial date (assuming all discovery is completed and the spouses are ready for trial) or (2) reach an agreement as to the terms of their divorce, including all of said terms in a Judgment of Dissolution and all accompanying forms.  These documents can be filed with and entered by the Court prior to the six (6) month date, but the actual divorce will not be final until that six (6) month date.

Otherwise, the Court will not do anything until it is “told” to do so, i.e. one or both spouses request a trial date and/or submit a Judgment of Dissolution and all appropriate forms to the Court for filing.  As a result, it can take much more than six (6) months for a divorce to be completed depending upon the actions of the spouses and/or their respective attorneys.

A Better Divorce is an interdisciplinary group of professionals in the Los Angeles area and South Bay area of California who are committed to non-court solutions for family law matters. Our vision is to reduce the trauma of divorce for families by educating every person considering a divorce on the non-adversarial options available for resolving family law matters. Visit our website for more information and to locate a Collaborative Professional in the Los Angeles and South Bay area of California.

Always consult an attorney in your area about your specific Family Law issue.

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