Over 70% of persons in California going through a divorce do not have lawyers. They are self-represented or in pro per. Navigating the court and the legal systems can be overwhelming. There are so many laws, rules, forms, and procedures, most family law lawyers have a hard time keeping up with all the changes. It can be extremely time consuming and frustrating for a non-lawyer to try to figure out how the system works. Having a lawyer as an occasional consultant to coach you through the process can make a huge difference and save you enormous amounts of time and money. We offer a variety of coaching services described below. If you hire us as a coach you pay only for the time you actually spend with us. Typically you pay as you go. For example, if you meet with us for a half hour so we can answer your questions about the law or court forms, you pay for that time at the end of the consultation. It is not unusual for clients to come in with just fifteen minutes of questions. We take pride in reducing the complexities of the legal system to terms that people can actually understand. If you use us as coaches, we will do as little or as much as you want. Many people can get through the divorce process with a minimal amount of coaching.Others require more help. It is up to you. Some of our clients handle 90% of the divorce themselves. Some clients are comfortable doing the paperwork, but have us step in to represent them during contested hearings. It is all tailored to your individual needs and comfort level.
Pre-divorce coaching: Perhaps 25% of the people that see us for an initial interview have not yet made the decision as to whether or not they want to go through with a divorce. They want to know what will happen if they decide to go forward with a divorce. Sometimes, they want to know what steps they should be taking to prepare for an eventual divorce. Should they move out of the family home before filing for divorce? What documents or computer files should they copy before filing for divorce? Should they withdraw bank account funds before filing for divorce? When should they file? We can meet with parties considering filing for divorce and provide them with information that may help them to make a decision as to whether or not to file for divorce. If a person ultimately decides to file, we can give them advice as to what steps to take before filing that may improve their legal position during the divorce process.
Coaching clients through divorce procedures: We can meet with you and give you an overview of the divorce process from start to finish. We can tell you what court forms you need to initiate the process. We can give you all of the court forms you will need to complete the divorce. If you have questions about how to fill out any of the dozens of forms that are involved in getting a divorce, we can answer your questions or even fill out the forms for you. We can tell you the proper order in which the forms are to be filed with the court clerk. We can tell you how to file the forms with the court clerk. We can explain about filing fees. Since we typically go to court several times per week, we frequently file forms for our clients with the court clerk at no cost because we are already filing paperwork with the clerk on other cases. If you are not a lawyer, you can wait for an hour or two at the court just to file your paperwork, only to find out that you did not fill out the form properly, do not have the correct number of copies or are missing a required proof of service. As lawyers, we do not wait in the same long lines as pro per parties. If we file your paperwork, you know it will be filed properly. We can also help with the proof of service. As a party, you cannot serve your spouse with court forms. The proof of service has to be signed by someone other than you that is over 18. Not only can we fill out the proof of service form for you, we can sign it, and file it with the court clerk. Certain court forms cannot be served by mail, but must be personally served on the other party. If personal service is required, we can refer you to excellent process servers.
We can explain how to complete the court required disclosure documents. We can tell you how to obtain temporary custody and support orders. We can tell you how to get your case scheduled for a settlement conference and eventually a trial.
Coaching you on custody issues: Before you appear in court and ask a judge to issue any kind of custody or visitation order, you and your spouse must first participate in an Orientation class and Child Custody Recommending Counseling through a court agency known as Family Court Services. Most people refer to Child Custody Recommending Counseling as custody mediation. During custody mediation, you and your spouse will meet with a counselor at the courthouse and try to reach an agreement on custody issues. If you reach an agreement, the counselor will draft the agreement and you and your spouse will sign it. If you don’t reach an agreement, the counselor will issue a Status Report to the judge prior to the hearing. The judge typically adopts the recommendations contained in the Status Report. Custody cases are typically won or lost during the custody mediation. Although lawyers are not permitted to participate in the custody mediation through Family Court Services, we can meet with you a day or two before the mediation and coach you so you know what to say and what not to say. We can explain how to act and how not to act during custody mediation. We have a list of 35 tips that we review with our clients before they participate in custody mediation at Family Court Services. If you wish, we can even refer you to former Family Court Services counselors that will prepare you for custody mediation.
Coaching you on support issues: Many clients are able to figure out how to divide their community property and debts, and even agree on how to share custody of their children, but figuring out the amount and/or duration of support is a complete mystery. The calculation of child support is done with a computer. The basics of the child support calculation program are not difficult to understand. However, there are a lot of complexities to most calculations. We have found that many experienced family law lawyers do not fully understand how to correctly calculate child support. We can run the support calculation for you and give you the computer printout that you can attach to your judgment so any judge will understand why the amount of support is correct. There are many other aspects to child support besides the guideline computer calculation. We can coach you through issues such as sharing the cost of child care, maintaining health insurance for the children, sharing the cost of extra-curricular activities; sharing the cost of educational expenses; allocating the expenses of college education for adult children; and which parent is entitled to claim the child as a dependent on future income tax returns.
Spousal support is much more complex than child support. There is a relatively simple method to calculate temporary spousal support while awaiting trial. However, determining the amount and duration of post-judgment spousal support is very complicated. We can explain, in understandable terms, what needs to be taken into consideration when deciding upon a proper amount of spousal support. We can also give you a range as to an appropriate amount of spousal support.
Coaching the division of retirement assets: Dividing bank accounts, furniture, and cars is fairly simple. Selling the family home and dividing the net sale proceeds is usually not difficult. However, most people do not know where to begin when it comes to dividing pensions, 401(k) accounts, IRA accounts, and other retirement assets. Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDRO) are needed to divide most, but not all retirement assets. We can tell you how to obtain model QDROs from plan administrators. We can refer you to local actuaries that will draft QDROs if model QDROs are not available. We can explain how to divide retirement assets to reduce the number of QDROs needed. We can explain how to divide retirement assets and avoid income tax consequences. We can explain how to figure out which portion of your pension or 401(k) that you earned before marriage or after separation is your separate property. Also, many people do not understand their own retirement benefits, let alone their spouse’s retirement benefits. Many of our clients don’t even realize they have pensions. Our firm has handled so many divorces and dealt with so many employer retirement plans, that we will oftentimes understand your spouse’s retirement benefits better than your spouse. We can coach you through the process of dividing community retirement benefits to make sure all benefits are fairly divided. We can also explain how stock options and restricted stock awards are divided.
Coaching you through mediation with another mediator: Our office strongly recommends mediation over litigation. If you select a mediator that is not with our firm, during your initial consultation with that mediator, the mediator will likely suggest you each consider hiring an outside attorney as a consulting attorney. Parties participating in mediation frequently hire our firm as their consulting attorney. As a consulting attorney, we can help protect your interests. For example, assume you and your spouse are going to meet with the mediator the following week to discuss support. If you meet with us first, we will give you a full education about support. We will tell you which facts and which arguments you should be sure to mention to the mediator because they help your position. We will tell you what the support amounts should be so that you can recognize a good deal, fair deal or bad deal during the mediation process. We can explain options about support that your mediator may not mention. Using our firm as your consulting attorney during mediation will give you the knowledge and confidence you need to have a successful mediation.
It is not unusual for a person to come to our office with a draft Marital Settlement Agreement that has been prepared by another mediator. We are asked to review the draft agreement as a consulting attorney and confirm that the agreement is fair. Although we frequently review draft agreements prepared by other mediators, it is usually a mistake to wait until the very end of the mediation to seek the advice of a consulting attorney. Sometimes the draft agreements have major problems. It can be very difficult for clients to go back to the mediator and their spouse and inform them that they no longer agree to the terms of the tentative settlement and major issues have to be re-negotiated from scratch. If you are going to use a consulting attorney, instead of waiting until the end of the mediation process, a better approach is to meet with your consulting attorney periodically as the mediation progresses.
Coaching uncontested cases and drafting settlement agreements: Some clients come to us and they have already reached a verbal agreement with their spouse on all issues. They just need someone to draft the Marital Settlement Agreement, the Judgment of Dissolution, and the other court forms necessary to process the divorce. Uncontested cases are relatively inexpensive to process, particularly if the client can provide the facts and figures in an organized manner. Other times, a client will come to us with a written Marital Settlement Agreement that their spouse has given to them and they want us to go over it with them, explain certain provisions, and let them know if the proposed agreement is fair or not. In this case, we can go though the proposed agreement paragraph by paragraph with the client in our office and make certain the client fully understands the terms of the settlement.
Processing Judgments: If you and your spouse reach a global settlement, draft all the paperwork needed for an uncontested dissolution, and drop all the paperwork off with the court clerk, it can still take 3 to 4 months for the court to approve and file the Judgment of Dissolution. If there are any mistakes in your paperwork, if you are missing a form, or your settlement agreement does not have the statutory language required in the custody and support sections, then the judgment will be kicked back to you by the court. You will have to correct any mistakes and then re-submit the paperwork, at which point it will take another 3 to 4 months for the legal techs at the court to review your proposed judgment and decide if it is acceptable or not. One service we offer is to not only review your judgment to make sure it is in order, but we can make use of a private judge that can process your judgment in about a week for a fee of $600. Processing a judgment quickly can be important for many reasons. For example, you can’t divide certain retirement accounts until you have an official divorce decree. If you are waiting 4 months for your divorce decree to be processed by the court, the value of the retirement accounts may change dramatically due to fluctuations in the stock market. Also, most people want to know as soon as possible that the court has approved their settlement and their case is officially resolved. They don’t want matters hanging for 4 months.
Coaching you through modification motions: Orders relating to children are modifiable upon a showing of changed circumstances. This means that custody, visitation, and child support orders are modifiable. Spousal support orders are usually modifiable. After your divorce is finished, circumstances may change. You may want to file a motion with the court and request a modification of an existing court order. We can meet with you, explain the process, tell you if a modification is likely to be granted by the court, show you which forms to complete, and tell you how to present your case at the hearing on your motion.
Coaching you through hearings: If you have a hearing coming up, we can meet with you in advance of the hearing to prepare you for the hearing. We can explain what to expect, how to argue your position, what not to say, and how to offer documents into evidence.
If you are intend to handle the divorce yourself, whether you need a lot of coaching or just a little, occasionally consulting with an experienced family law attorney to guide you through the difficult parts of the divorce process is an inexpensive way to get through a very complex system with some assurance that the divorce will be done properly, your Judgment of Dissolution will be valid, and the result will be fair.