Do I have to have a QDRO if my spouse and I are splitting a pension or retirement account?

Attorney Allison HardinIf a pension or retirement account is being divided or reallocated in a divorce, then yes, you need a QDRO. However, Divorce Helpline attorneys can help people avoid QDROs through other channels. One example would be a buyout of the account by one party or an exchange of one asset for another. If someone has an IRA and a 401K, it may be possible to do an IRA to IRA transfer incident to the divorce, thereby avoiding the need for a QDRO.

Can using a private judge keep my divorce documents confidential?

Attorney William E. WoodcockMaybe. In some cases, using a private judge may allow you to keep information about your divorce agreement out of the public record, including the details of who got what, who has custody of the children, who is paying support and how much, etc. With more courts progressing to digital records that can be searched online, the idea of public records with the details of divorce agreements being easily accessible is a growing concern.

Whether your agreement can be kept out of the public record depends in large part on the county in which your divorce is filed (not necessarily where you currently live) and whether or not that jurisdiction allows for certain divorce documents to remain private. We have helped many people, including celebrities, keep the details of a divorce private by strategically selecting the court in which they file for divorce. If you are at all interested in this option, consult with an attorney at Divorce Helpline to find out if options are available to you.

How Many Mediation Sessions Are Needed to Complete a Divorce?

Attorney Hamid NaraghiThis depends entirely on each couples’ situation. When we discuss your individual case with you prior to mediation, we can give you an idea of how many sessions may be needed. It’s possible that you may not need mediation at all. Generally, most of our clients are able to settle their issues so that we can prepare a settlement agreement within one or two mediation sessions.

Can a consultation help me decide if a divorce is a good idea?

Attorney William E. WoodcockOnly you can decide if you should or should not get divorced. Needless to say, that is not a decision that should be taken lightly. But it is extremely important to go to the right person for the right help. On the emotional decision as to whether your marriage is over, you should speak to anyone who can help, whether that is a friend, family member, clergy, family therapist, etc. To the extent that knowing your legal rights, obligations and options may help you decide whether or when you should move forward with a divorce, a consultation with a Divorce Helpline attorney can help you understand and weigh all of your options.

The team at Divorce Helpline is skilled, knowledgeable and experienced in all phases of the divorce or legal separation process, and we can provide some clear information that may make it easier for you to make a decision. At Divorce Helpline, we are completely neutral—our job is not to sway you in one direction or another. We are here simply to provide you with knowledge. A consultation is always a good first step, whether you ultimately decide to divorce or not. It is an inexpensive way to consider your options, and far less expensive than going directly to a litigating attorney. You can pay as you go, minute by minute, if you choose. We’re here to help you as much, or as little, as you need.

If my same-sex spouse and I live outside of California, can you help us get a legal divorce?

Attorney Allison HardinYes. If you and your spouse live in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, we may be able to help you obtain a divorce in California. In order to be eligible for a California divorce, you will have to meet one of these criteria: you were married in California, but now live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage; or, your marriage or domestic partnership was established in California or another state, and either you or your partner live in California; or, your domestic partnership was established in California and you now live elsewhere.

Can a private judge shorten the time it takes to get a divorce?

Attorney Hamid NaraghiYes and no. Every divorce in California is subject to the “6-month rule” as required by law. This cannot be reduced by a private judge. However, using a private judge can help to significantly reduce the amount of time that it takes to get a divorce finalized after the 6 months have passed. Using the private judge option can be also be extremely valuable in providing predictability and control over when your divorce will be final!

The “6-month rule” means that under California law, your divorce cannot be finalized, and you cannot be returned to the status of a single person, until a minimum of six months and one day have passed from the time your spouse is either served with a Petition and Summons, or the service requirement is otherwise met (speak to a Divorce Helpline attorney about how to avoid personal service of documents. In an amicable divorce setting, this is often recommended). However, because of the strain on the court system in California and the budget issues which have only worsened that strain, it can often take much longer to navigate a divorce through the courts, sometimes as much as one year from the time an agreement is reached and your final documents are submitted to the court for final approval. Using a private judge allows you to bypass the majority of the processing of paperwork with the courts and waiting for a judge of the Superior Court to get around to your file, which can reduce this timeframe to about one month. Knowing and controlling when your divorce is final is desired by many people, especially for those who would benefit by having their divorce final by the end of any given calendar year.

A private judge can also help you resolve issues and provide a legally binding decision that will be filed with the court. This can be done in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years.

The private judge option can be a valuable one, but it’s not necessary for all situations. If you are at all curious about whether your situation would benefit from this option, contact Divorce Helpline for a no obligation evaluation by one of our attorneys.

Are all mediators the same?

Attorney William E. WoodcockPeople assume that all mediators are the same and that each mediator can do what another one does, but in fact there can be huge differences in terms of experience, expertise, sensitivity, style, approach, knowledge, credentials, etc.  As a result, there can be a significant difference in the quality of mediation services you receive and whether your mediation will be a successful one.

For starters, not all mediators are attorneys, and not all attorney mediators are experienced family law attorneys. This is important if you want someone who has the ability to provide you with credible and accurate legal information about your legal rights/obligations/options.

Spend the time to find a mediator whose style works for you — one who has the sensitivity and experience to handle your dispute in an appropriate manner.  Ideally, you will find someone who has the ability to continually adjust and readjust the tone of the mediation depending on the temperament of each person throughout the mediation process.  The mediator should be able to reduce the stress that you are both experiencing, which often results from a lack of coordination and organization of the issues. An effective mediator can direct the order in which the issues are discussed and determine what information is needed from each person and how to get it.  This is why I strongly urge people to interview mediators (preferably, the interview should be done together) to find the right one who meets your needs. When you find the right one, listen to your gut…you will know and feel which mediator is “the right one.”

The bottom line is that not all mediators are created equal.  It’s extremely important to find someone with whom you feel comfortable and who can help move the process along by helping to keep the conversation focused and productive.

The Business of Divorce – Part 4: Money Management

Managing Finances During Your Divorce

This is the fourth in a series of posts on dealing with the business aspects of your divorce. This material is adapted from the award-winning book by Ed Sherman, “Make any Divorce Better.” Ed Sherman is one of the founders of Divorce Helpline. His dedication to providing compassionate and cost-effective personalized legal support to those facing divorce resulted in the unique service model that distinguishes Divorce Helpline from other California divorce attorneys and divorce document services.

Trying to support two households on one income is the most common of all divorce problems and a powerful source of fear that fuels conflict. Spending suddenly goes up dramatically while income stays the same. If anything, the ability to earn money is reduced during this prolonged crisis, yet two households now have to live on the same old income. It is the unknown that makes us afraid of the future, afraid of change. What will you live on? How will you make ends meet?

Once your physical safety is assured, your next most important need is financial safety. The difference between a desperate existence and a good life is knowing that you have enough coming in and an emergency reserve that will see you through several months.

Living securely on a low standard of living is far better than a higher standard of living that is always at risk. Many people don’t seem to know that.

Here is a seven-point system you can use to solve money problems and plan your future:

• Make an inventory of assets that you own, bills that you owe
• Study your past spending patterns
• Make an inventory of income that you can count on
• Plan your future spending
• Create a control system
• Seek creative alternatives and set goals
• Review and change

1. Make an inventory of property you own and bills that you owe. Your net worth is the amount by which your assets exceed your liabilities. If you own valuable property after your divorce, you may decide to sell it and use the money for living or for investments. As to debts, any budget you make will have to include a plan to pay them off or discharge them in bankruptcy.

If you find that you are overwhelmed by your debts and repayment makes your budget impossible, you may have to consider plans to reorganize or discharge your debts. You may want to research consumer credit counselors in your area who can help you to consolidate and repay your debts.

2. Study past spending patterns. Gather up all the old records, bills, receipts, and check stubs you can find covering at least one year. Offer to make copies of records in your spouse’s possession and offer to give your spouse copies of your records. If your spouse won’t turn over records you need, a lawyer can force them out through a legal process called “discovery.” If your records are incomplete, make estimates from memory. Start now to save these financial records and track your expenses over a period of time.

Most people have never analyzed their spending patterns and have never made any organized effort to control their spending. If your income is going to become reduced or uncertain, you may have to start some new habits. Consider it growth, an adventure.

3. Inventory income you can count on. What income can you count on? Naturally, you will want to learn your rights or your obligations regarding child and spousal support. How much can you get? How much will you be expected to pay? What is reasonable?

Figure a low estimate for irregular or uncertain income, because if your actual income falls short, your planning will fail and you’ll end up in a squeeze. Unfortunately, speaking statistically, child and spousal support (alimony) are often an inadequate and unreliable source of income. But there’s hope: (1) there are more teeth in support enforcement laws than ever before; and, (2) spouses who reach an agreement have a much higher rate of support paid in full and on time. Go for agreement – divorce mediation is a great way to get there.

4. Plan your future spending. Now that you know how your money has been spent in the past, you are in a good position to make an informed estimate of spending needs in the future. Make sure the spending you plan is no greater than the income you can count on.

If you occasionally take in more than you spend, that money should go to emergency reserves and investments for future security. Everyone should try to accumulate enough savings to live on for several months in case of an emergency. That’s the only way to be secure.

If your spending needs exceed the income you can count on, you have only two alternatives: reduce your spending needs or find new sources of reliable income. Living on a lower standard of living is much better than the emotional stress and insecurity of living beyond your means.

If forced to, you can spend your savings or sell off assets to raise money, but these are non-solutions because you aren’t solving your basic problem of more going out than comes in. When you run out, then what do you do?

5. Create a control system. A budget only works if there is some way to keep track of your spending and keep yourself within its guidelines. You don’t need to label every penny, but you do want to watch your spending by budget category. Keep track of separate categories such as food, housing, insurance, entertainment, etc.

6. Seek creative alternatives and set goals. Now that you have a handle on your income and spending, you may want to set some goals for the future. Be as specific as possible. Creating a reserve of emergency funds sufficient for several months should be high on your list.

Beyond that, you may want to consider a plan for investing in your future. If your budget is too tight or your income is too low, you will want to try to find ways to create more reliable income. This means looking for new work, more education and training, new opportunities, a new career. Read books on careers and consider seeing a career counselor.

7. Review and change. After your system runs for a while, you should sit down and review it carefully to see how it is working. Has anything changed? If so, you may need to change your budget. If you can’t stay within a category, try to figure out why. Adjust and fine-tune your categories, revise your goals.

Problems? If you find the budget process too complicated or difficult, you may need to see a financial or credit counselor for help and support. Consider the consumer credit counselors mentioned above, or you might ask your local bank loan manager or an accountant if they know any professionals who specialize in helping people with budgets.

If you have questions about any aspect of your divorce process, please give us a call at 1-800-359-7004. We’re here to help.

The Business of Divorce – Part 3: Separate Business from Personal Matters

Avoid Mixing Business and Personal Issues During Divorce

This is the third in a series of posts on dealing with the business aspects of your divorce. This material is adapted from the award-winning book by Ed Sherman, “Make any Divorce Better.” Ed Sherman is one of the founders of Divorce Helpline. His dedication to providing compassionate and cost-effective personalized legal support to those facing divorce resulted in the unique service model that distinguishes Divorce Helpline from other California divorce attorneys and divorce document services.

In your divorce, you have a lot of business to take care of, so one of the best things you can do for yourself is to decide to keep business and personal/emotional matters separate — or as separate as possible. This will make a big contribution toward reducing the level of conflict and confusion in your case, and in your own mind.

If you would like information and support to help you move forward with your divorce, while maintaining a healthy separation between your business and personal affairs, we can help you with consultation and coaching. Alternatively, you may want to talk to us to find out how divorce mediation can help you resolve the issues that you need to address with your spouse in order to reach an agreement.

As you focus on the best ways to separate your business and personal concerns, be sure to tell your spouse what you have decided to do and explain that it will help you both. You can benefit from taking this step unilaterally, but try to get your spouse to agree, too. Set a good precedent by starting off with an agreement. Here are some things you should decide to do:

• Be very businesslike when you and your spouse are doing business. Dress for business instead of casually and adopt a professional attitude and tone of voice.

• Try to see yourself as two separate people — a business professional and an emotional, feeling human being. Be the emotional person some other time. Postpone meetings if you can’t be relatively calm and thoroughly prepared.

• Discuss business at appointed times and places. Always be prepared with a written agenda of what you want to talk about and check off each item as it gets done. Bring copies of necessary documents. Take notes. Again, if you need help with this, consider using our divorce mediation services.

• If you meet in person, do not meet at the home of either spouse. It is too personal, it triggers emotions, and someone may feel at a disadvantage. You should be able to get up and leave if necessary. Meet instead at a coffee shop, in a library or school meeting room, at a park or a friend’s house if it feels good. Anywhere quiet, safe and neutral will do, but do not meet at a spouse’s home or office.

• Decline to discuss business and personal matters in the same conversation. Be consistent and firm about this. If something personal comes up when talking business, say “I’d be happy to discuss that with you later, but not now, please,” and offer to set a specific time. If your spouse persists, hold firm, repeat your request once more. You may need to quietly explain that you will leave or hang up if it happens again. If necessary, do so. Don’t get excited or emotional; be businesslike, but stick to your decision.

•Likewise, decline to talk money when you are discussing personal matters. Do not get into a business discussion spontaneously or impulsively. You need to get properly prepared and emotionally composed each time.

• If your spouse is being difficult in your emotional life, try not to let that infect your business relationship. Similarly, if your spouse is being bad in business negotiations, don’t let that affect you emotionally. Don’t get upset — it’s only business.

If you and your spouse frequently violate these rules and if it appears to be affecting your ability to move toward an agreement, you should seriously consider working with a good mediator.

If you have questions about any aspect of your divorce process, please give us a call at 1-800-359-7004. We’re here to help.

The Business of Divorce – Part 2: Common Financial Traps

Avoiding Financial Mistakes During Your Divorce

This is the second in a series of posts on dealing with the business aspects of your divorce. This material is adapted from the award-winning book by Ed Sherman, “Make any Divorce Better.” Ed Sherman is one of the founders of Divorce Helpline. His dedication to providing compassionate and cost-effective personalized legal support to those facing divorce resulted in the unique service model that distinguishes Divorce Helpline from other California divorce attorneys and divorce document services.

Over and over again, people make the same mistakes and lose serious money that could have been saved.

Ignorance is the most common trap in the business of divorce. Because your life is upside down, you may not want to deal with tedious financial details, but if you don’t take the trouble to understand what’s going on financially, and what you are entitled to, you might as well hang a big “victim” sign around your neck.

Ignorance increases your own sense of helplessness and leaves you vulnerable to the risk of being manipulated. You are also at risk of getting bad advice and a bad deal. You can seek advice and assistance from professionals, but you should never rely on anyone but yourself to take care of your business for you. Be sure to make the effort to organize and understand the business part of your life.

Bad judgment is a real hazard when emotions are running high. Insecurity makes you doubt your own thinking and ability. Fear and anger make you grasp for too much or surrender too much.

Of course you should get what you are entitled to, but to demand more for emotional reasons is inviting a ruinous conflict that might leave you with less in the end. And giving up what you have a right to can leave you with a future full of regret if not hardship. So be careful and take precautions against your own emotionally affected judgment:

• Understand the emotional cycles that both you and your spouse are going through. Keep in mind that at any given time, emotions can strongly affect your judgment and decision-making ability.

• Keep business and emotional matters separate.

• Don’t jump to sudden conclusions or make impulsive agreements or decisions. Above all, unless you face a desperate emergency that can’t wait, don’t rush off to a lawyer until you have some information and get yourself prepared.

• Don’t sign anything you haven’t thought about or don’t understand.

• Use structured problem solving. Keep a journal and make entries in it regularly about your thoughts and feelings. Keep track of your evolving priorities, possible solutions to problems, and your goals. Review your journal regularly, especially before making any final decisions.

• Use the law as a guide. You are not required to follow the legal standards, but they have been worked out over millions of cases. If you are confused or in doubt about what you want to do, and if the laws are clear and predictable, use them as a guide.

• Seek advice from reliable, informed, experienced people.

Excessive spending is very common before, during and after a separation. Before breaking up, a couple may buy a new home or remodel their old one, buy a car, take a long vacation, have a baby — anything to bring them together in something. This is not usually consciously planned, it just works that way. During separation, spending is used as an anesthetic for emotional pain. After separation, the couple genuinely needs a lot of money to set up two separate households, added to which is neurotic spending driven by emotional upset.

Being aware of this trap may be of some help, but it is often difficult to see or control your own eccentricities. Control impulsive and compulsive buying the same way you would control neurotic eating habits. The best thing is to make yourself as open, centered and strong as possible. Deal directly with your emotional issues instead of reacting and running from them.

Money-hiding is not common but it is not rare, either. Sometimes, when it becomes clear that a divorce is coming, one spouse or the other will start putting money away in a private money stash. If this is done without cheating the community, it is actually a good idea because it gives that spouse a sense of security, independence and control. However, if marital assets that belong to both spouses are being secretly diverted into a separate account, this is a clear case of cheating.

In moderate amounts, it may not be worth fighting over, but it is something to watch out for, keep track of, and include in any future accounting. In extreme cases, you will want an attorney to take emergency measures to protect the marital estate and your interest in it.

Sometimes, the money manager will spend joint savings or take out a loan for living expenses while putting regular income into a separate account. A family business can be manipulated or run into the ground so income appears low later. Or bonuses and commissions can be postponed until after separation. The list is almost endless.

If a divorce is coming, take a careful look at plans to refinance your house or other kind of loan. Watch where income goes and watch your savings account withdrawals. After separation, take a close look at financial transactions during the previous year.

If you have questions about any aspect of your divorce process, please give us a call at 1-800-359-7004. We’re here to help.