An Overview of California Divorce Law
The divorce process in the Golden State is relatively straightforward, but divorce settlements often involve complicated legal and factual issues. A better understanding of California Divorce Law and these issues helps the process go more smoothly.
Procedurally, California judges grant nearly all divorces based on irreconcilable differences, so once one party decided to file, there is essentially no way for the other spouse to prevent marriage dissolution. Only a handful of marriage dissolutions are based on incurable insanity, which is the only other legal ground.
As for the terms of divorce, most states have custody timeshare laws which guarantee children meaningful and consistent contact with both parents, at least in most cases. Typically, the timeshare arrangement is around 70/30. But largely thanks to the efforts of real estate lobbyist James Cook, California is a pure joint custody state. So, in most cases, parents divide time with their children on a 50-50 basis.
Furthermore, property division matters are a little different in the Golden State as well, because California is a community property state. All marital property is divided equally between the two divorcing spouses, regardless of whose name is actually on the title.
California Divorce Law and it’s Relation to Child Custody
To divide the children’s time roughly equally between two different households, most divorce decrees involve one of these three child custody models:
Extended Weekend: The children spend most days with parent A, and every other Thursday through Monday with parent B. This plan works especially well in the summers when the children are not in school.
2-3-2: The children spend Monday and Tuesday with parent A, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with parent B, Saturday and Sunday with parent A, and then the schedule flips the next week. The 2-3-2 may be the preferred model in most cases.
Empty Nest: Instead of the children shuttling back and forth between houses, the parents shuttle back and forth between houses while the children stay put. This model usually only works if the parents still get along fairly well and live in the same general neighborhood.
Since the Family Code does not designate any preferred parenting plan, there is considerable flexibility to tailor an arrangement that’s best for that particular family.
Joint custody arrangements are not always in the childrens’ best interests. Sometimes the parents live too far apart, sometimes one parent is unfit, and sometimes one parent is unwilling to care for the children for that amount of time. In these situations, limited or supervised visitation is probably in order, as judges sever ties between parents and children only in extreme cases.
Child Support and California Divorce Law
Essentially, individual support obligations start with an overall assessment of the children’s financial needs, taking into account things like:
Children’s Age: Typically, child rearing expenses follow a reverse curve. The sky-high daycare costs associated with infants and preschoolers gives way to several years of relatively lower expenses, followed by an increase during the teen years.
Prior Standard of Living: Divorce usually means a lower standard of living for everyone involved, but to the greatest extent possible, children should not be financially penalized because of their parents’ divorce.
Special Expenses: Many children have special emotional, educational, physical, or other needs.
The overall child support obligation may change over time as the children’s financial needs change.
Next, the parents must divide the support obligations proportionally between themselves. This division is a little complicated in practice, but the process helps avoid unusual outcomes, such as a lower-income parent paying child support to one who earns substantially more. Like the obligation itself, the proportional split may also change over time.
Property Division and California Divorce Law
Somewhat similarly, the community property rule is not always easy to carry out because property often gets commingled, especially in longer marriages.
Assume that a husband buys a car just before the wedding, and over the years, he consistently uses funds from his paycheck to make the payments. The car itself is separate property, since the husband acquired it before the marriage, but the paycheck funds are community property, because the husband earned the money during the marriage. There are basically two possible outcomes:
Reimbursement: Upon divorce, the husband may have to pay the wife her share of the community funds that he used to make the car payments.
Transmutation: If the husband made nearly all the payments with community funds, the car may be fairly classified as community property that is subject to division between the spouses.
The reimbursement/transmutation issue takes on even greater weight if the property in question is a rent house or other income-producing property.
Spousal Support in California
Alimony is a means to an end in California Divorce Law. In other words, spousal support payments are intended to help the obligee spouse obtain economic self-sufficiency; they are not a way to permanently equalize the living standard between the two people. Family Code 4320 contains a number of factors for the judge to consider, including:
Current employment skills.
Any need to develop such skills by returning to school or accepting a low-paying internship.
Non-economic contributions to the marriage as a homemaker or caregiver.
Obligor spouse’s ability to pay.
Obigee spouse’s financial need.
Standard of living during the marriage.
Any agreements between the parties.
As for the duration of payments, if the marriage lasted less than ten years, there is an informal cap at half the length of the marriage. There is no such informal cap in longer relationships.