If you are planning to get a divorce, or have just learned that your spouse wants to
divorce you, the first thing you ought to do is get legal advice, so that you can at least
have an idea of what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.
Too often, clients wait too long to seek professional help. They often get into trouble they could otherwise avoid. Most of the time the damage is reversible, it’s just going to cost more to undo it, than if professional help was sought in the first place. Sometimes, what would have been a $2,000 problem, just became a $10,000 problem. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to at least seek that initial consultation to learn what your rights and duties are, and to get an idea of what is generally involved in a divorce. Just getting the basic information a free consultation provides a potential client, often goes a long way to alleviating stress and helping to take back control of one's life at a chaotic time.
Unlike any other area of law, divorce involves a dimension that is not involved in most other civil suits- namely children. Divorces with children can be incredibly difficult because parents often have a difficult time putting emotions aside, in order to do what is right for their children. Good parents can easily make poor decisions in a time of stress. Undoing poor decisions is a difficult task, but critical to success in seeking custody orders. They often can be undone, but it is always a question of time and money.
The other problem is that many people intuitively think that the law and morality
are in sync- why wouldn’t they be, right? So, for example, many parents feel that telling their children the truth is a good thing. It is morally correct, right? With this thought in mind, read the following typical scenario.
A husband and wife are in the midst of a divorce. Mom alleges dad drinks too much, dad accuses mom of neglecting the children. When their 12 year old child asks mom what’s going on between the parents, and why is the family home being sold, or why do the parents have to sell all the recreational vehicles, or why can’t the child see dad right now, some parents in this situation decide to tell the truth.
After mom is done telling her 12 year old all about how dad drinks too much, and
that’s why the marriage fell apart, that will forever alter that child’s relationship with the father. It may damage it permanently. This is not in the child’s best interest, and therefore harmful to the child. Courts will not take kindly to this sort of behavior
In the context of a divorce, when a parent, who has what really and truly appears to be a good reason, withholds visitation from the other parent, and later finds themselves in trouble with the Court, they are usually astonished to find themselves in trouble. Worse yet, when the Court punishes this behavior, the reasoning of the Court gives, generally makes no sense to them. Again, the key is to have professional help to make sure you avoid such pitfalls.
Having said all that, the question is what should I expect in a “normal” divorce?
If you have no children, the case is usually simpler. A typical situation for our firm occurs when a client hires us to file for dissolution of their marriage (divorce). We prepare and file the papers with the Court, and then a copy is served on the other spouse. The other spouse then has 20-60 days to file a response (depending on where they are served).
The next step is an intermediate one: what do we do between filing and serving
the other spouse and finalizing the divorce? In Washington, if everyone agrees on the terms of settling a dissolution of marriage, then the parties can be divorced in as little as 90 days. During that time, it is usually a good idea to bring a motion for temporary orders to allocate things such as whom shall occupy the family home, whom shall be responsible for the payment of marital debts, and whether any temporary spousal maintenance is needed by either spouse.
After this, typically, the parties (hopefully through attorneys) try to mediate so that they can mutually agree on how to divide their assets permanently, as well as debts, and deal with things such as pension and retirement plans, not to mention whether spousal maintenance is needed by one spouse, and if so, how much and for how long. If the parties can agree on terms of a settlement, then entering final orders reflecting that agreement is very easy for us to do. If however, the parties cannot agree, then the case may have to go to trial.
A caution about trials. First, they rarely occur because most people can see the
writing on the wall, in terms of likely outcomes if they go to trial, especially if they are properly advised and follow that advice. Second, in the rare instance that a trial needs to be pursued, one must bear in mind that they are notoriously expensive to pursue because they are incredibly time consuming to prepare for, and take up to 8 hours per day in legal fees to attend. Third, the worst part of all about trials, is that a person may wind up in the same or worse position after trial than if that person had accepted the settlement offer made by the other side, prior to going to trial. In other words, trials can be very wildly unpredictable and expensive.
If the case involves children, and custody is disputed, then often times, the court will appoint either a guardian ad litem (“GAL”) or a parenting evaluator, who will be tasked with providing the court with input as to what they feel is in the children’s best interests, when it comes time for the court to issue visitation and custody orders, known as a Parenting Plan in Washington. The topic of GALs and parenting evaluators is complex. Choosing which to obtain, and then selecting and handling these professionals requires knowledge and skill, as well as familiarity with the community of GALs and parenting evaluators.
The key phrases that recur in custody cases are:
- Best Interests of the Child
- Maintain the Status Quo
- Significant Change in Circumstances of a Parent or Child
These three phrases virtually govern all the law that covers with which parent the
children shall reside, with whom they shall have visitation (when and how long), whether to keep them in their current situation or change their living situation, and what would justify such a disruption of any child’s status quo. As a parent, you will want to become intensely familiar with these phrases, what they mean, and how they apply to everyday situations as they come up in the context of an ongoing divorce, or perhaps after the divorce is over, but when trouble erupts in the current custodial arrangements between the children and parents.
In addition to determining your Parenting Plan, the courts will determine how
much the non-custodial parent shall pay to the custodial parent for child support. This amount is largely based on a mathematical formula, which typically works well in cases where the combined net incomes of the parents is less than $7,000 per month. Although determining child support can become complex, generally, the court bases the order on how much time the child spends with each parent, and what the parties’ share of the combined net income is. So for example, for a 16 year old child, if the parties’ net monthly income is $6,900 per month, and from that amount the non-custodial parent earns 82% of the total, then child support would be set at $974 per month. This does not include things like health and dental insurance, which cost the parents additional money.
There are ways to minimize or increase child support payments in the example
given above. For example, if the non-custodial parent has children from other relationships, such as if the non-custodial parent remarries and has another child, then a credit would be applied for that other child, thus reducing the overall amount of child support due. Alternatively, if the custodial parent incurs a large daycare bill, or if there are private education costs, or long distance traveling expenses, then those are also things that will lead to increases in the base amount of child support that will be owed.
Unfortunately, the information contained herein in very general in nature, but
hopefully, one can get a feel for what is involved. This also serves as a good reminder that you ought to at least consult with an attorney before making any decisions in how to proceed with your case.
Where the parents of a child are unmarried, no matter whether the paternity of a
child is contested, the law requires parties to use a paternity suit as the legal vehicle in order to issue a Parenting Plan and Child Support Order. Beyond determining paternity, this type of case will largely follow the same process as a dissolution of marriage.
There are some exceptions to this, such as determining child support and whether
one party has to pay for the legal fees of the other. Unlike in a dissolution proceeding, in a paternity case, child support can be made retroactive up to five years, in some instances. Also, unlike in dissolution proceedings, courts are much freer to determine whether to award attorney’s fees to one party, and they are very likely to do so, especially in cases where one party earns significantly more than the other party.
Modification of Parenting Plan (Child Custody Order)
Courts generally will not order a Parenting Plan to be modified unless the parties either mutually agree to do so, and have a sound basis for asking the court to sign such an order, or unless the court finds that based on a significant change in circumstances of a parent, child, or both, that disrupting the child’s status quo is in the child’s best interests. (Remember the three key phrases above.)
Pursuit of a modification generally requires a finding by the court that there is
“adequate cause” to even consider modifying the Parenting Plan. After that, the process works similarly to a dissolution of marriage, in terms of how the case progresses and determining whether to allow the petitioned for modification.
It should be noted that during this process, child support can and will be modified
as required, and again, the same rules apply as in the initial dissolution of marriage.
Modification of Child Support Order
After an initial entry of a child support order in a dissolution of marriage, the
support order may be modified without any significant change in either party’s incomes, one year later, and then every two years after that. If a person seeks to modify support at any other time, they must show why this is financially necessary.
If the custodial parent wants to move, so that they wind up in either to a different
school district or farther away, they must provide notice to the non-custodial parent of their intention to do so. (Note, there are some exceptions to this notice requirement.) Typically, the non-custodial parent must then decide whether to oppose the move, and if they do, they will file an objection to relocation with the court, thus putting the matter back into litigation.
There is a legal presumption in favor of allowing the custodial parent to move
away, however, that is a rebuttable presumption that may be overcome. Whether the rebuttable presumption can be overcome is largely dependent on the facts in each individual case.
Domestic Violence Protection Orders
Since this area of law is very fact intensive and can lead to strict restrictions on
your personal freedoms, but more importantly, serious physical harm or death, if you believe you are the victim of domestic violence, you are urged to call law enforcement first, to ensure your immediate safety, and then to call our office for a consultation to find out what you can do to protect yourself and your children.
If you have been accused of committing domestic violence, you are strongly
advised to contact our office for a consultation to determine your rights, and what needs to be done in your specific case, given the exact circumstances of your case, in order to protect your rights.
This is perhaps the easiest form of adoption, especially, where the
biological parent agrees to allow the step-parent to adopt their child. This is also the most cost-effective type of adoption. In a typical case, after preparing and filing the paperwork with the court, a social worker will be hired to come visit with the parents (or prospective parents) and the child as appropriate, to determine if the adoption should be granted. The social worker will then prepare a report, which will be submitted to the court for consideration in determining whether to sign the final order allowing the adoption to take place.
All Other Adoptions
If you are seeking anything other than a step-parent adoption, you are
advised to e-mail us at email@example.com to set up a consultation to determine if adoption is right for you, and what is involved given the particular facts of your case.
Our office is centrally located in downtown Seattle, on the corner of 6th Avenue and Pike Street. Our conference rooms are more than capable of handling even the most complex of cases.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information on setting up a mediation.