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LA County Superior Court Updates

In this season of spring cleaning, the LA County Courts have introduced two procedural changes to expedite enforcement of existing rules and empower parties throughout the divorce process.  Here, we discuss what these changes may mean for clients navigating divorces.

UPDATE #1: Orders to Share Financial Information

As discussed in earlier editions of As It Happens, spouses have a fiduciary duty to provide complete and accurate information regarding any transaction involving their community property upon request.  This duty applies both during marriage and divorce - in California, spouses must disclose all separate and community income, expenses, assets, and debts within 60 days of service of their Petition or Response, and are required to continually update this information while the proceedings are pending.   Failure to do so can lead to a variety of penalties and sanctions, including forfeiture of some or all of the undisclosed asset(s), and payment of the non-breaching party’s attorney’s fees. Full and timely disclosure of the totality of a party’s financial picture is crucial in determining whether and in what amount the parties will owe support and/or attorney’s fees, and the need for/extent of the discovery required.  

Consider the example of Jane and Tom, who have been married for 21 years, and share two minor children.  Jane - who was the sole earner in the marriage and exclusively controlled the parties’ finances - files for divorce from Tom.  Within days of filing, Jane cuts off Tom’s access to all their shared accounts.

In order to have an accurate understanding of the assets available to him for spousal support, child support, and attorney’s fees, Tom will need to see Jane’s Income and Expense Declaration.  Additionally, while Tom knows Jane owned multiple companies and had a large, diversified investment portfolio, he doesn’t have any details about the amount and locations of their community assets. In order to determine the amount of discovery his attorneys have to do, and whether he needs to hire any experts, a forensic accountant for example or a business or real estate appraiser, Tom will need to see Jane’s disclosures. A review of the disclosures will help Tom and his legal team understand what Jane claims their community or their separate estates consist of.  

Before mid-May 2018, if Jane failed to meet her 60-day deadline, Tom would have to first submit his own disclosures, then submit a formal request for Jane’s within a certain period of time.  If Jane still refused to submit her financial documents, Tom could file a motion with the Court asking it to order Jane to do so, and further request that she be sanctioned for noncompliance.  Starting in May 2018, whenever a petition for divorce, legal separation, or nullity of marriage is filed, the Court will issue an Order to Share Financial Information.  If a party doesn’t file their financial disclosures within 60 days of filing either their Petition or Response, this new order empowers the Court to sanction them immediately (note: the money collected from such sanctions is payable to the court, not the opposing party).  Not only does this new order save the party requesting disclosures time and effort, it acts as an incentive/motivation for both parties to disclose at the outset. 

UPDATE #2: Orders to Share Financial Information

The second modification has to do with Requests for Order, more commonly referred to as “RFO”s.  Once a proceeding for divorce, separation, or nullification of marriage has been initiated (i.e. once one party has filed a Petition and the other party has filed a Response), either party may file an RFO to request a formal order from the court that will control some aspect of the parties’ relationship for the duration of the legal proceedings between them.  

Under the new rule, whenever the first RFO is filed in a family law matter (with the exception of requests for Domestic Violence Restraining Orders), the Court will issue an Order for the parties to participate i a Family-Centered Case Resolution Conference, and schedule said conference for the same date as the hearing for the RFO.  Prior to the conference, the parties or their attorneys will be required to discuss the entire case in detail (including settlement proposals) either in person or over the phone. Then, at the Conference, the Court can attempt to facilitate the settlement of the case, or make orders for how the case will proceed. The Court will also provide the parties with a Divorce Checklist, which lists some of the common issues in divorce cases and where to find the information the Court typically wants to see before making decisions on those issues.  One of the issues highlighted on the Divorce Checklist is the issue of real property division, one that arises in nearly every divorce case. In addition to pointing out the issue, the Checklist notes that the Court will want to see copies of title papers, the most recent mortgage statements, and an appraisal from a licensed real estate appraiser before making a ruling on division of the property.

To understand the practical effect of this new rule, consider the example of Heidi and Chris:  In June, Chris files for divorce from Heidi, and moves out of the family home. The two spend the summer shuttling their young son between summer camp, friends’ houses, Heidi’s house, and Chris’ new residence.  However, in August, it occurs to Heidi that it may be useful to have a more concrete schedule in place during the school year, so she files an RFO, requesting a formal determination of custody for the remainder of the pending divorce action.   Under the old system, the Court would schedule a hearing during which only the matter of Heidi and Chris’s temporary custody arrangement would be discussed and ruled upon. Now, when Heidi files her RFO, the Court would schedule not only the custody hearing, but the Case Resolution Conference as well.  While it may be that in that moment all Heidi and Chris are concerned with is where their son is going to be the first months of school, they’ll now also have to discuss support and division of their community estate, any reimbursement and tracing issues.   Heidi and Chris are now required to start collecting information about and discussing every aspect of their divorce case from the outset.  Even if all their issues aren’t resolved at the Case Resolution Conference, the door has now been opened for a conversation about their entire divorce.  It remains to be seen whether this rule will tend to expedite the divorce process by motivating parties to be informed or will more often increase the cost of litigation by mandating the parties to address all other issues instead of focusing their efforts on the one before the Court. 

While these additions and modifications can have a major impact on the cost, strategy, timeframe, and outcome of your divorce.   To find out more about how these rules may affect the landscape of your divorce, visit our website at zitserlaw.com, or call us at (310) 948-6461 or (818) 763-5274 to schedule a consultation. 

From “honoring and obeying” to taking out the trash, the duties that first come to mind when thinking about marriage are usually not fiduciary ones.  Nevertheless, failure to fulfill these obligations of good faith and fair dealing can have serious financial consequences for couples before, during, and after divorce.  While fiduciary duties arise in a wide variety of contexts (including between doctors and their patients, lawyers and their clients, and priests and their parishioners), they take on a particular meaning with married couples.  Simply put, they compel spouses to deal fairly, responsibility, and transparently with one another regarding the management of their community property.   Community property consists of assets acquired between marriage and separation, and includes wages, real property, stocks, businesses, bonds, pension plans, and 401ks.   Additionally, a couple can change the character of an asset and agree that assets that are “separate” under the law (like an inheritance received during the marriage and prior to separation, or an asset owned prior to date of marriage), be re-characterized from separate to community.

While California law appears to allow each spouse to manage community property however they want,[1] fiduciary duties exist to check this apparent absolute power of disposition.  Family Code §721 dictates that spouses have the same fiduciary relationship as non-married business partners, which, in the context of the marital relationship, means they must do things like share information about transactions affecting their community assets and debts.  In California, fiduciary duties exist between spouses so long as their community property remains undivided.[2]  For example, a couple who is ordered by the court to sell their former family residence and divide the proceeds may finalize their divorce before the residence has sold, but will continue to have fiduciary duties towards one another vis a vis the house until it sells.

Here, we explore some of the more common scenarios and pitfalls couples experience when confronted with their roles as fiduciaries:

SCENARIO 1 – Providing Access to Records

              In the recent case of In re Marriage of Kamgar, the California Court of Appeals addressed whether the undisclosed trading of community stock constitutes a breach of a spousal fiduciary duty.   Fred and Moira, a well-to-do couple, decided that Fred – who had developed an interest in options trading – would liquidate $2.5 million worth of community property stock so that he could “try his hand at doing something he [found] interesting.”   Unbeknownst to Moira however, Fred in addition to the agreed upon $2.6 million went on to liquidate and invest an additional $8.1 million of the couple’s community stock, ultimately losing all but $409,000 of their $10.6 million community funds.   When Moira filed for divorce a year later, Fred argued that the Family Code authorized him to spend the couple’s resources as he would his own, and that requiring him to report to Moira on the minutiae of every investment was untenable given the fast-paced nature of the modern electronic marketplace and the number of financial decisions implicit in the marital relationship.  In response, the court highlighted the duty of each spouse to always make available to the other, without asking, any and all information required for the exercise of their rights in the marriage.[3]   The court explained that, since each spouse has a right to manage the community property, the withholding of any information that would prevent them from said management is a violation of a spousal fiduciary duty.[4]   Ultimately, because each spouse in a marriage has an equal right to manage the community’s property, the court found that Fred’s failure to disclose his additional $8.1 million investment to Moira infringed upon her managerial right and was therefore a violation of his fiduciary duty.   

              Our firm recently handled a case in which the parties co-owned an international import/export business.   After their separation and the husband’s assumption of control of the business, the wife withdrew a large amount of money from the business account.  The husband responded to this withdrawal by immediately taking her name off all business accounts and cards and changing all the company’s passwords and login information.  The court held both parties accountable for their respective fiduciary breaches: it found that the wife breached her duty by withdrawing such a large sum without the husband’s knowledge or consent, but also required the husband to provide her with monthly reporting of all the business’s financials, and to report any large or otherwise extraordinary transactions.

SCENARIO 2 – Providing Information Upon Request

During both marriage and dissolution, spouses have a duty to disclose to one another “upon request, true and full information of all things affecting any transaction that concerns the community property.”[5]  In fact, California even requires divorcing spouses to fully and accurately disclose all separate and community income and expenses at the very beginning of divorce proceedings.  For instance, per Family Code § 2104, the spouse who commences the divorce action is required to serve his/her financial declarations (known as Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure) on the opposing party within 60 days of serving the Petition for Dissolution and responding spouse is required to serve his/her Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure within 60 days of service of the Response.    

Additionally, spouses have a duty to continually update this information while the proceedings are pending.[6]  The 2007 case of In re Marriage of Feldman dealt with a community estate worth in excess of $50 million. Aaron Feldman accumulated assets worth in excess of $50 million.  During their divorce proceedings Mr. Feldman failed to disclose significant assets to his wife, including: a $1 million government bond and the loan taken out to purchase it, a multi-million-dollar residential property, a 401k, and the acquisition of several new companies.  The court found that by failing to disclose these assets when Ms. Feldman specifically requested this information, Mr. Feldman violated his fiduciary duty to disclose upon request.   The court also found that, because Mr. Feldman’s omission was intentional as opposed to inadvertent, his punishment must likewise be more severe. 

CONSEQUENCES

What about the remedies and consequences available to the respective parties for these breaches?  Because the discovery process is an essential tool in achieving equitable division of marital assets, courts deal very seriously with parties who intentionally fail to disclose assets or debts.  Family Code § 271, 1101, and 2107 provide a range of remedies in the event one party’s nondisclosure “results in impairment to the claimant spouse’s present undivided one-half interest in the community estate.”  These remedies include sanctions “in an amount sufficient to deter repetition of the conduct or comparable conduct”, payment of the opposing party’s attorney’s fees, and exclusion of evidence regarding the undisclosed item.  Depending on the degree of deceit it observes in the nondisclosure, the court has the ability to order forfeiture of 50% to 100% of the value of the undisclosed property.  Take, for example, a case handled by our firm, in which the husband failed to disclose multiple pieces of real estate.  After the proceedings were over and a judgment of dissolution was entered wife discovered that several real properties existed and were purchased by husband with community funds.  The husband failed to disclose the existence of these assets during the proceedings.   While the parties ended up settling outside of court, the court had the discretion to grant wife 100% of the real estate purchased with community funds and intentionally omitted by husband.   

The non-offending party has three years from the time they learned of the breach to seek one or more of these section 1101 remedies from a family law court.  As set forth in Feldman, no harm need to result to the nonoffending spouse from the nondisclosure to receive sanctions and attorney’s fees.[7]   In the Feldman, Mr. Feldman was ordered to pay $250,000 in sanctions, and wife’s attorney’s fees of $140,000.   

It is worth noting that, while these potentially severe penalties can be appropriate in instances where someone intentionally hides information, the courts and the law are aware that sometimes assets are not disclosed by mistake. For example, when parties have so many brokerage accounts between them that they mistakenly fail to address one in the judgment, and it remains undivided.  In such a case the parties may go back and ask the court to divide these omitted assets.

CONCLUSION

Fiduciary duties can come into play at many junctures in marriage and divorce including the expenditure of community funds during marriage, and failing to disclose community assets during divorce.  Because of the high stakes associated with spousal fiduciary duties, it is important to retain an attorney that understands them, and what they entail.  Decisions made during the marriage and during divorce can have a huge impact on how the court divides assets so find an attorney who can both explain them to you and give you wise advice.  If you are planning on or currently navigating a divorce, here at the Law Offices of Diana P. Zitser our team of attorneys and financial experts is here to help. 

 

[1] Fam. Code §1100, subd. (a) [“[E]ither spouse has the management and control of the community personal property […] with like absolute power of disposition […] as the spouse has to the separate estate of the spouse”, italics added]; (In re Marriage of Kamgar (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 136, 144 [“[E]ach spouse is mutually entrusted with full individual authority to manage and control community property, including disposing of or otherwise alienating it”, italics added].)

[2] Fam. Code § 1100, subd. (e) [“Each spouse shall act with respect to the other spouse in the management and control of the community assets and liabilities in accordance with the general rules governing fiduciary relationships […] until such time as the assets and liabilities have been divided by the parties or by a court.”] 

[3] Fam. Code § 1100(e) [“This duty includes the obligation to make full disclosure to the other spouse of all material facts and information regarding the existence, characterization, and valuation of all assets in which the community has or may have an interest and debts for which the community is or may be liable.”];  Fam. Code §721 (b)(1) [“Providing each spouse access at all times to any books kept regarding a transaction for the purposes of inspection and copying.”]; Corp. Code § 16403(c)(1) [“Each partner […] shall furnish to a partner […] without demand, any information concerning the partnership’s business and affairs reasonably required for the proper exercise of the partner’s rights and duties under the partnership agreement[.]”]

[4] In re Marriage of Kamgar (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 136, 146 [“Since each spouse has equal management and control rights, it appears they must provide the other ‘without demand, any information concerning the management and control of the community property.  The failure to do so would be a breach of his or her fiduciary duty.’”].

[5] Fam. Code § 721, subd. (b)(2).

[6] Fam. Code § 2100.

[7] (Feldman, supra, 153 Cal.App.4th at page 36 [finding that none of the sections of the Family Code addressing remedies for fiduciary duty violation are aimed at redressing harm, but rather, at “reduc[ing] the adversarial nature of marital dissolution and the attendant costs by fostering full disclosure and cooperative discovery”].) 

January is a time of new beginnings, including for couples navigating divorces. For separated or divorced individuals, settling into a new relationship can represent the start of an exciting new chapter, but can also have a drastic impact on the finances of both former spouses. If you are currently divorcing, or have already finalized your divorce, here is what you need to know about cohabitating with your new partner:

1. Why It Matters.
According to the California Family Code, “except as otherwise agreed to by the parties in writing, there is a rebuttable presumption, affecting the burden of proof, of decreased need for spousal support if the supported party is cohabitating with a nonmarital partner.” This means that, if Former Spouse A (the spouse receiving support from Former Spouse B) begins cohabitating with a third party, the court will assume – unless Spouse A demonstrates otherwise – that they are in need of less financial support. The only way around this presumption is for the parties to agree in their divorce judgment that a change in the recipient spouse’s cohabitation status will not affect the amount of money he or she receives from the payor spouse. The rationale behind this presumption is that cohabitation reduces the amount of support required as two parties’ incomes are now being used to buy fewer than twice the resources (known as an “economy of scale”), and one party may now have access to the income of another.

2. What It Is.
Here is where things get a little tricky. The concept of cohabitation appears in many different areas of California law, but rarely is it explicitly defined. For example, the state penal code uses a factor test that considers: (1) whether the parties are engaging in sexual activity while living in the same space; (2) whether the parties share the cost of living together; (3) whether the parties share ownership of or jointly use of the same items of property; (4) whether the parties represent themselves as married to society; (5) the continuity of the relationship; and (6) how long the parties have been in a relationship. California criminal cases have also looked to whether the parties “lived together in one bed”, whether the parties demonstrated “sexual or amorous intimacy”, whether they are engaging in “something more than a platonic, rooming-house arrangement”. Criminal law also acknowledges that an individual can simultaneously cohabit two different locations with two different individuals. The evidence code includes cotenants as cohabitants, and does not require that they be married. The family code refers to a cohabitant as “a person who regularly resides in the household”, with no mention of romantic or sexual intimacy.

3. Who It Applies To.
The statutory presumption only applies to the obligee spouse – the former spouse receiving the support (as opposed to paying it). If a payor like Former Spouse B begins living with a third party there may be related circumstances that would result in a change in support, but the statutory presumption would not apply.

4. How Long It Matters For.
The timeline for support (as outlined by statute or by the judgment agreed to by the parties) is the controlling factor in how long support is owed. For example, if the court order specifies that jurisdiction for spousal support terminates after 15 years, Spouse B may not be successful in petitioning the court in year 14 for an extended five years of support on the basis that he or she is no longer cohabitating (and is therefore in need of additional funds).

5. What It Affects.
The cohabitation presumption detailed in the Family Code affects only spousal support (otherwise known as alimony). Child support belongs to the recipient child, not the parent paying it, nor the parent receiving it on the child’s behalf. As such, one cannot contract around it. Child support is the product of a formulaic calculation which considers many different metrics, including: the gross income of both parents; the tax deductions available to each parent; and the amount of time each parent spends with the child. When determining child support, courts generally look at whether the child’s needs are adequately provided for (regardless of which parent the child is with at the time), rather than whether the parents are left on an equal financial footing after taking care of the child’s needs. So long as the child’s needs are being met, the fact that one parent may be benefitting financially from cohabitation with a third party may be immaterial.

6. Is Cohabitation the Only Thing that Impacts Spousal Support?
No – the California Family Code lists a variety of life events which may constitute a material change in circumstances sufficient to modify child support, including deterioration in health and changes in income. Other circumstances, such as remarriage (or registration as a domestic partner) and death ordinarily result in the termination of spousal support. Sharing expenses with a roommate or boarder may also result in an increase of decrease in addition to the presumption arising from cohabitation itself.

Cohabitation is a legal construct that appears in several different areas of California law. In attempting to define it, the California legislature and courts have largely been vague – perhaps for flexibility, and perhaps because defining cohabitation requires courts to distill/delineate what qualities define a relationship. This has resulted in one-off, context-based definitions, and defining cohabitation by what it is not. To help you navigate this potentially-costly area of law, it is imperative to have an attorney who can help you weigh the pros and cons of addressing cohabitation – either in your divorce judgement, or in court after an ex brings a challenge to support. For example, a divorcing couple may want to spell out a specific definition of cohabitation in their judgment – if Spouse A knows what sort of behavior will produce what sort of financial consequences, it may provide clarity and expediency in later court proceedings because the parties may not need to debate whether the behavior at issue constituted cohabitation. Conversely, spelling out specific terms might mean the recipient spouse could behave in a manner just shy of cohabitation and continue receiving full support payments. If the parties keep the cohabitation language in their judgment vague, it may be easier for them to get into court with an argument for reduction, but more difficult for them to prove it once they get there. At the Law Offices of Diana Zitser, we offer our clients access to a team of attorneys with the collective experience to help you determine what impact you or your ex’s cohabitation status has on you.

SOURCES:
Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)
In re Marriage of Bower (2002) 96 Cal. App. 4th 893
In re Marriage of Minkin (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 939
In re Marriage of Romero (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1436
People v. Hollifield, 205 Cal.App.3d 993
People v. Taylor (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 11
Cal. Evid. Code §972
Cal. Fam. Code §4320
Cal. Fam. Code §4323(a)
Cal. Fam. Code §6209
Cal. Pen. Code §13700(b)

For couples going through divorces, the joy of the holidays and New Year often goes hand in hand with emotional, logistical, and financial challenges.  Here are some of the end-of-the-year issues couples should consider when in the process of a divorce or in the midst of a separation:

Year-End Distributions.  As anyone familiar with the Griswold family knows, the holiday season often coincides with receipt of annual bonuses, commissions, and other year-end distributuions, all of which can impact the amount of spousal and child support members of a divorcing couple owe one another.   While California courts generally use the parties’ base incomes to calculate monthly support payments, they also apply so-called “escalation provisions” when either spouse earns income in addition to their base salaries – for example, from bonuses or commissions.  Derived from a series of cases known as Smith-Ostler, these escalation provisions may increase or decrease the amount of child and spousal support owed depending on whether the payor or payee spouse (or both) earns income in addition to their base salary. 

Consider the example of Spouse A and Spouse B, who share one minor child: Spouse A earns $475,000/year, and Spouse B earns $45,000/year.  For purposes of this example, let’s assume the child resides with Spouse B approximately 75% of the time.   After considering all the relevant deductions and credits, let’s say the court determines that Spouse A owes Spouse B $3,700/month in guideline child support and $9,700/month in spousal support for a total monthly support of $18,000.  If at the end of the year Spouse A receives an annual Christmas bonus of $400,000, the court, after applying a multi-factor formula that takes both the parties’ base incomes into account, will make what is known as a Smith Ostler order, directing Spouse A to pay a percentage of the bonus to Spouse B as additional child and spousal support. 

In the example above, Spouse A may be ordered to pay as much as 6% of $400,000 bonus as additional child spousal and 33% as additional spousal support for a total additional support amount of $156,000.  On the other hand, if Spouse B also receives bonuses and/or commission on top of their $45,000 base salary, the amount they are awarded from Spouse A may be proportionately reduced.

If you are going through a divorce and either you or your spouse earn income above and in addition to your base salaries, it is important to consult with an attorney as to what each of your rights and responsibilities with regard to support payments may be.

Date of Separation.  Establishing a date of separation is another critical element of any divorce proceeding in community property state like California, because it determines when property transitions from belonging to the community, to belonging to the individual parties.  For example, if Spouse A and Spouse B are married in 2010, separate in 2015, and divorce in 2017, generally their wages for the five-year period prior to separation are considered community property.   Disputes about separation dates can have a huge financial impact on the ultimate outcome of a divorce. 

If there is a subjective disagreement between the parties as to the date of separation, the court will look at many objective factors including how the parties hold themselves out to the rest of society.  This can present substantial difficulties for couples navigating a divorce while attempting to keep up appearances during the holidays at family gatherings, religious ceremonies, and holiday office parties.   

Consider a case in which our firm represented a wife who decided to separate from her husband but agreed to wait to formally file for divorce and physically separate until their 12-year-old daughter left the family home for college.   While they continued to hold themselves out to the rest of society as a married couple (attending family functions and school events together), there was a mutual understanding between themselves that their marriage was over.  They slept in separate bedrooms and, other than appearances for the sake of their daughter and the business they ran together, led separate lives.  Unfortunately, during this period, the husband also happened to rack up millions of dollars in gambling debt and investment losses.   Six years later, when their daughter graduated from high school and left for college, the couple finally filed for divorce.   During the proceedings, the husband alleged a date of separation being the date they filed for divorce instead of six years earlier in an attempt to claim the debts he incurred during the six-year period as a community loss not his personal loss.   After reviewing the evidence presented at trial, the court found that the date of separation had occurred six years prior – even though the two participated in activities that made them appear like a married couple.   It was their subjective understanding (as evidenced by the behavior between them), which proved to the court that they had in fact been separated for six years, and the husband’s debts were awarded to him as his separate liability.

Contrast this with the 1977 case of In re Marriage of Baragry: despite deciding to end their marriage, the husband continued to eat dinner at the family home, brought home laundry, went on vacations with his wife without their children, and sent her Christmas and Birthday cards including the words “I love you”.   When the couple formally filed for divorce four years later, the court determined that the filing date was their date of separation because their previous behavior had not demonstrated an intent to permanently terminate the marital relationship.

If you are planning to divorce, wish to retain your current earnings as separate property, but need to attend family events, work functions, and other holiday gatherings with your soon-to-be ex, it is wise to establish a clear understanding between you, maybe even in a writing like an e-mail or text, that, the attendance does not symbolize a reconciliation.  The same approach can be taken for gift-giving: establish in writing (for example, in texts, e-mails, or the card accompanying the gift), that the presents you may be exchanging are not an attempt to or indication of a desire to rekindle the marriage, but merely thoughtful gestures.   

The holiday season need not be made more complicated because of divorce.  Having access to a legal team well-versed in California law that employs experts such as forensic accountants, financial planners, and child therapists will ensure a smooth, strategic transition for you, your former spouse, and your family.   For access to our team of experts, and advice on how best to navigate this time, contact our offices at (818) 763-5274, (310) 948-6461, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

SOURCES:

In re Marriage of Baragry (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 444

In re Marriage of Manfer (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 925

In re Marriage of Ostler & Smith (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 33

Cal. Fam. Code § 771(a)

The final months of 2017 saw Congress pass widely publicized legislation promising broad-based reform of the federal tax system.  The final measure[1] – which is due to be signed by the President prior to the upcoming holiday recess – reflects a consensus between sweeping changes proposed by the House and a more moderate counterproposal offered by the Senate.   Provisions eliminating the taxation and tax-deductibility of alimony payments[2] and lowering the mortgage interest deduction cap[3] mean the substantial impact predicted for the public and private sectors[4] is likely to also be felt by couples going through divorce.  For those of you contemplating or currently pursuing a divorce, here are the two main ways the new legislation may affect you:

Alimony.   Under the present system, alimony payments (referred to under California law as spousal support) are treated as taxable income for the recipient spouse, and tax-deductible income for the paying spouse.[5]  Take, for example, Spouse A (who earns $500,000 per year) and Spouse B (who earns $0).  During their divorce proceedings, the court orders Spouse A to pay Spouse B $175,000 a year in alimony.   Spouse A is currently allowed to deduct this $175,000 from their taxable income, while Spouse B has a baseline taxable income of $175,000.  Under the new legislation, alimony is neither tax-deductible for the payor, nor taxable for the payee.[6]  Because their alimony payments are not considered taxable, Spouse B would receive $175,000 tax-free, while Spouse A would pay $175,000 from their post-tax income.  The new legislation will not come into effect until January 1, 2019, so only couples who execute or modify their divorce decrees after December 31, 2018 will be impacted.  While the law as currently applied arguably incentivizes an accelerated settlement process by providing a tax break to payors of spousal support, the new law risks creating a disincentive for individuals to settle to spousal support disputes.  Since spousal support is a common point of negotiation between divorcing couples, increased contention on this point risks prolonging the settlement process, resulting in a higher emotional and financial costs for the couple, and a negative impact on judicial economy.

Mortgage Interest Deduction.  Currently, the tax code allows homeowners to deduct interest on the first $1 million of a new mortgage.   Congress has imposed a temporary lowering of this cap to $750,000 through the end of 2025.[7]  While this won’t affect divorcing couples who already have a mortgage (current mortgages are grandfathered in to the current $1 million cap), couples who obtain a mortgage after the passage of this new legislation and later decide to get divorced may be impacted.   According to the California Family Code, the statewide uniform guide for determining child support takes into consideration the “state and federal income tax liability resulting from the parties’ taxable income […] after considering appropriate filing status, all available exclusions, deductions, and credits.”[8]  Spousal support is also a function of the net disposable income of both parties.  Therefore, if the deduction cap is lowered, it may result in the payor being able to deduct less from their taxable income under the compromised plan, giving them less net disposable income, and reducing the amount of support received by the payee.

In light of the passage of this new legislation, it is critical to stay on top of the constantly changing legal landscape.  Couples undergoing a divorce deserve a law firm with a team of experienced experts to explain how the changing tax code may impact the trajectory of their divorce.  At the Law Offices of Diana P. Zitser, our network of brokers, appraisers, forensic accountants, and other tax professionals can provide this invaluable insight.  For more information on how current legislative trends could affect your divorce proceeding, schedule a consult with our offices by visiting our website, or calling us at (818) 763-5274.

 

[1] Jeanne Sahadi, What’s in the GOP’s Final Tax Plan, CNN Money (Dec. 20, 2017, 8:21 AM), http://money.cnn.com/2017/12/15/news/economy/gop-tax-plan-details.

[2] Alexis Leondis, Why You Don’t Have to Rush to Get a Divorce Before 2018, Bloomberg Politics (Dec. 18, 2017, 7:37 AM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-18.

[3] Darla Mercado, Here Are Five Breaks You’ll Miss the Most in the Tax Bill, CNBC (Dec. 19, 2017, 9:24 AM) https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/19.

[4] John W. Schoen, GOP Plan Would Stick Millions with Bigger Tax Bills, CNBC (Dec. 12, 2017, 2:28 PM) https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/12.

[5] Mercado, supra note 3.

[6] Leondis, supra note 2.

[7] Mercado, supra note 3.

[8] Cal. Fam. Code, § 4055 et seq.

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Do you truly like your name?

Sometimes, parents just don’t get it right, and just because you’re born with it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. So, what’s in a name exactly? More than you would think, especially if you take the number of people who change their names in California every year as any indicator. A name is a descriptor that allows people to make assumptions or judgments about individuals. Names are often times first impressions, and the meaning of a name may indicate attributes and qualities about an individual’s personality.

There are many reasons why people choose to change their names. Some of the most common reasons include: disliking their current name, the desire for a less ethnic name, to make it easier on others, the name is too common, changing a child’s surname to the mother’s or father’s, transgender name changes (like Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner), a husband taking his wife’s name upon marriage, and even to make a political statement (think NBA player Ron Artest legally changing his name in September 2011 to Metta World Peace).

In fact, we once represented an elder client whose name was so common, that almost every year he would receive notice from California Department of Child Support Services naming him in a paternity action and insisting that he had fathered a new child in need of support. Because our client chose to keep his name, we had to explain to CDCSS almost yearly that our client, who was over 70 years old and could hardly walk, was not the person they were looking for.

Requesting a name change is a relatively simple process in California. Name changes used to be even easier – where all a person was required to do was pick a new name, begin using it, ask government agencies like the DMV to start using it, and after a few years, the new name would become a person’s official legal name. Unfortunately, due to identity theft, the process now usually requires a court appearance. The name change process varies slightly depending on whether the individual requesting the name change is at least 18 years old or a minor. You can essentially choose any name that you desire, except for: the name of a famous person if the chosen name was made with the intention to financially benefit or cause harm from it, a fictitious name that is protected by copyright, a racial slur, or a fighting word. After the name change decree is issued from the court, the new name can be legally changed on all documents.

Did you know Katy Perry’s birth name is actually Katy Hudson? Or that Natalie Portman’s real name is Natalie Herschlag? Or even that Meg Ryan’s real name is Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra? We don’t know if they have legally changed their na

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What is Paternity?

Paternity is the official name for a case about child custody or parentage. Usually, if the natural parents are married when a child is born, there are no questions about child custody because the law presumes the paternity of the father. Paternity issues tend to arise when a child is born to an unmarried couple. In these instances, parentage of the child needs to be established legally and typically before child support, child custody, visitation rights, name change, health insurance, or birth expenses are resolved by the court.

When disputing paternity, the court may order a genetic test, also known as a DNA test, to determine the paternity of the father. Sometimes, a voluntary declaration of paternity may be used to establish the paternity of a child. In other instances, child custody experts may get involved. Occasionally, the law may even determine that there may be more than two legal parents.
Other issues that tend to arise include determining who will care for the child, where the child will attend school, what extracurricular activities that child will be enrolled in, relocation of a party with the child, or even under what circumstances a parent can take the child out of the county, state, or country.

In addition to child support and child related expenses, the court can order one party to pay the opposing party’s attorney fees, including the cost of maintaining or defending the proceeding. The costs awarded may also include legal services or costs rendered before or after the commencement of the proceeding.

One of the most contentious issues in a divorce proceeding is the division of the marital property, also known as community property or properties obtained during the marriage, between the spouses.  35 years ago, California became the first State to enact a law announcing that community property in a marriage stops being earned when the couple started to live "separate and apart."[1]  The governing statute, Family Code, section 771, subdivision (a) states, "[t]he earnings and accumulations of a spouse... while living separate and apart from the other spouse, are the separate property of the spouse."     

At first glance, the meaning of “separate and apart” seems simple--husband and wife break up, wife moves out and lives with her best friend or a relative; or as often depicted in movies and TV shows, the husband, moving out and living in a hotel or an apartment.  Thereafter, one or both spouses file for divorce.  Per section 771(a), each of the spouse's earnings when one or both of them moved out will not be counted towards the marital property subject to division during the divorce.  But this simplistic and literal understanding of the statute proved to be unworkable in real life situations.   

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A House Divided: Separate Under One Roof

One of the most important elements in any California divorce is the date of separation.  As a general rule, everything that a person earns from the date they get married to the date of separation is treated as community property.  The date of separation also has an impact on the valuation and division of assets, including pension and retirement plans as well as debts. In California, a community property state, the community estate is divided equally between the parties, and everything that a person earns or accumulates and incurs after the date of separation is usually considered to be their separate property or debt.  Therefore, the date of separation can have a major impact on the valuation and division of the parties’ assets and debts. When the parties disagree about the date of separation, depending on the facts in the case it may be prudent to bifurcate the date of separation issue and have a separate trial on that issue alone. 

The phrase ‘date of separation’ refers to the language of California Family Code Section 771, which is the statute that outlines the general rule described above.  The phrase does not come directly from the statute.  The relevant language in Section 771 is: “while living separate and apart from the other spouse.”  At first glance, this language appears to mean that the date of separation occurs when one of the parties moves out of the family home.  However, California law recognizes that neither real life nor relationships are that simple.  Two people can continue to live in the same home long after their marriage is effectively over.  This seems to have become especially common in recent years, perhaps because of widespread economic difficulties.  Alternatively, a married couple may remain committed to each other even if their jobs or other factors cause them to live in separate homes, or a couple may temporarily live in separate homes during a rough time in their relationship, then get back together. 

On October 4, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation SB 274 allowing children in California to have more than two legal parents.  Governor Brown stated that the legislation addresses the changing family structure – such as situations where same-sex couples have a child with an opposite-sex biological parent.  Such legislation gives the courts the ability to divide custody and financial responsibility among three or more legal parents who are involved in raising the child.

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10.0Diana Pamela Zitser

Location

5200 Lankershim Blvd., Suite 850
Los Angeles, CA 91601
Phone: 818 763-5274
Fax: 818 763-5096

diana@zitserlaw.com