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International Travel and Child Custody – What You Should Know

Sometimes it seems that issues around child custody are needlessly complicated and difficult to understand. So when a parent who shares custody of a child wishes to travel internationally, he or she should be aware of the additional legal ramifications of taking that child out of the U.S.

In one respect, things are fairly straightforward, at least for residents of California. This state has no statutory prohibitions for international travel with a child, unlike state laws affecting a parent’s decision or desire to relocate with a child out of his or her county of residence to another part of California (or another state). However, other variables, such as travel restrictions in a court order, may impact travel plans.

To understand how child custody may affect international travel, let’s look at situations (1) where there are no court orders and (2) where a child custody order is in place.

No court orders

If your child doesn’t already have a passport, federal law requires both parents to sign the passport application. To complete this process, both parents can appear in person to present the application or one parent can give the other parent a document of signed consent to indicate their agreement.

In cases where one parent objects to the other parent traveling out of the country with their child, obtaining a passport may prove difficult. Sometimes this may legal proceedings to establish each party’s rights—that is, to file a petition for custody orders.

Another reason why it is important to have the other parent’s consent (or court orders establishing specific rights) is that various government agencies in the country you wish to visit may require a letter of consent signed by the other parent. This can also apply to customs and/or airline officials who ask to see a signed letter of consent before taking the child’s boarding pass.

A custody order in place

Some child custody orders may include provisions that prohibit or at least limit the extent of international travel with the child (this can apply to domestic travel restrictions as well). Even if there are no specific restrictions, it is a good rule of thumb to make every effort to get the consent of the other parent before making travel arrangements and to ensure that, unless the other parent is in total agreement, such travel does not conflict with either the other parent’s time with the child or with the child’s school attendance.
Even when a custody order is silent on the issue of travel with the child, you may still have to “jump through hoops” regarding, as stated above, passports, letters of consent, and so on. Again, my advice is to always obtain permission for your travel plans, in writing wherever possible.

Nightmare scenarios

What happens should you choose to disregard the other parent’s wishes and travel out of the country with your child without the consent of the other parent? Here are possible nightmarish consequences to consider:

• The other parent can file a police report with local law enforcement, charging you with parental kidnapping.

• The other parent can appeal to the U.S. Department of State and set proceedings in motion that charge you with federal parental child abduction.

• If a custody order exists, the court can deem your actions “contemptible,” laying the groundwork for additional penalties and fines on your part, as well as grounds for a change of custody.

Again, if you must travel to Mexico or elsewhere outside of the U.S. with a child, do everything in your power to get the other parent to consent. Once the other parent has consented, you can travel with the child worrying of facing the above-indicated civil and criminal penalties.

If for some reason you’re unable to obtain consent and still need to travel with your child, promptly consult a family law attorney to explore your other legal options.

Unclear as to your rights under a child custody order? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf, APC offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.

Want to Bad-Mouth Your Ex-Spouse? Bite Your Tongue!

Divorce triggers a lot of strong feelings, so it’s natural for each side to have negative emotions and the desire to express them. But as a family law attorney with extensive experience in this area, I strongly urge my clients not to express those feelings in the home setting.

Kids are “sponges”

As a parent myself, I know first-hand that children are “sponges,” taking in everything they hear and see, and easily influenced by the people around them—especially their parents. If one spouse demeans the other, the result is almost always a negative one. It can bias a child against a parent or, if the child has strong, loving feelings about the criticized parent, can end up generating negative feelings about the spouse doing the bad-mouthing.

As any experience family law practitioner would attest, the general legal consequences of such negativity can be severe, including but not limited to a seemingly never-ending barrage of arguments and verbal attacks, extensive expensive and time-consuming litigation for modification of child custody, intervention by a child welfare agency due to accusations of abuse and neglect, and a very possible loss of various parental rights.

In other words, bad-mouthing is a no-win proposition all around.

Non-disparagement clause

Most child custody orders now include a non-disparagement clause, wherein both parents are admonished that neither parent is to make negative statements about the other parent in the presence of children. This provision usually includes a requirement that each spouse must also do everything possible to avoid letting other people (family members, significant others, etc.) say negative things about the other parent in front of the children.

Violating the non-disparagement clause can affect an individual’s custody rights. The offending party may be required to attend a co-parenting class or, in extreme cases where one parent simply can’t keep his or her mouth shut, the Court can limit that parent’s visitation rights (e.g. supervised visitation) to attempt to insulate the children from such negativity being said about the other parent.

What can you do in a bad-mouthing situation?

If you feel that your children are being affected by unwelcome comments, there are steps you can take to address the problem.

  • Discuss the situation with the other parent in a non-retaliatory, non-confrontational manner. This could be as informal as sitting down with your ex-spouse and reminding them that the Court has ordered both parties not to bring up any legal matters, parenting problems or other issues you have with the other parent in front of the kids. Then you can work together on developing a strategy for dealing with issues as they arise between you.

 

  • If you’re worried that such a discussion will fall on deaf ears, then address the issue in a letter or email to the other parent. In this way, you have documentation of attempts to address the problem informally, trying to amicably resolve the issue without extensive litigation, in the event you must bring it to the Court’s attention in the form of a request to modify custody.

 

  • If the problem still persists, consider filing an action requesting parenting classes or changes to the terms of the parenting plan.

 

When parents divorce and go their separate ways, one of the main goals of the Court is to minimize disruption in children’s lives. This should be each parent’s goal, as well. For this reason, it’s best for each party in a divorce proceeding – even if they can’t stand each other – to bite their tongues and keep their opinions to themselves when around their kids.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

Elements of an Effective Parenting Plan

Whenever a divorce proceeding takes place and children are involved, issues of child custody and visitation inevitably arise. The goal for everyone involved should be to design a custody and visitation arrangement (also called a “parenting plan”) that effectively addresses the health, education and well-being of the children.

Typically, parenting plans are organized into two components:

Legal custody. This refers to which parent is responsible for making key decisions affecting the child’s daily life, most often those involving education, religious practice, medical needs and extracurricular activities. As with physical custody, legal custody can also be either sole or joint, though joint legal custody entitles each parent to participate in decisions about their children’s lives (even if they don’t agree on all of these decisions). In California, the presumption is that both parties can share legal custody, with exceptions where circumstances clearly dictate that one parent should have sole legal custody—as in situations involving domestic violence, abuse and abandonment.

Physical custody. This relates specifically to where a children lives and how best to organize their activities. With sole or primary custody, the child lives with one parent most of the time and visits the other parent. With joint custody, a child lives with both parents. In either case, certain questions need to be answered, including: Where should children live during the week and on weekends? Which parent is in charge of the children and at which times? How do children get from one parent to the other?

Physical custody also addresses the issue of each parent’s visitation rights. In my experience, visitation rights can be anything from “no rights” to having the children half (50%) of the time. Additionally, a parent can receive rights to supervised visitation, which generally involves the presence of a third party who monitors a parent’s time with his or her child; although the parties may agree to have a parent supervise the other parent, especially when it is in the child’s best interest, such as when a parent has previously had little to no contact with the child, to ease the previously-absent parent into the child’s life. Factors determining the need for supervised visitation may include, but are not limited to:

  • The child’s relationship to the parent
  • Any history of domestic abuse
  • A parent’s detrimental conduct (due to alcohol or drug abuse, for example)

I believe that generally when it comes to determining these concerns, parents are uniquely positioned to make the best judgment call. In the vast majority of cases, parents have greater personal knowledge of what’s best for the children. By contrast, other participants in a court proceeding—such as lawyers, judges, other mediators—generally know much less about the children’s own personal past, present and future needs.

When parents are sincerely motivated to do what’s best for their children, the results are generally very favorable. Parents know their own strengths and limitations best. If they focus on the kids, they can (and should) be able to work things out between themselves.

If this isn’t possible, it’s time to consult a family law attorney and get assistance in creating a workable parenting plan for the future.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

“No-Fault Divorce” in California

In the old days, when a husband or wife wanted to get a divorce, they had to give a reason for this momentous decision or prove why their spouse’s actions (such as adultery, abuse, abandonment or extreme cruelty) made the marriage no longer possible. This approach to dissolving a marriage frequently led to the types of “ugly” divorces we’ve heard so much about.

In the “no fault divorce” State of California, that’s all a thing of the past. When one spouse or domestic partner decides the marriage or domestic partnership is over, all they have to do is check a box marked “Irreconcilable differences” and legal proceedings get underway. Under California state law, publically airing out the bad behavior that may have contributed to the end of the marriage/partnership is no longer necessary. Whatever reason lies behind the dissolution is, in essence, irrelevant to terminating the marriage/partnership.

I still get plenty of clients who come to my office and want to tell me the reasons they feel their marriage/partnership is over. And while it’s good to understand why a person has arrived at such an important, life-changing decision, in the eyes of the law it generally doesn’t matter. In California, the only obligation the person requesting dissolution of marriage/partnership has is that he or she must swear, under penalty of perjury, that the marriage is over. As noted in California Family Code Section 2310(a), you must declare that “irreconcilable differences have led to the irremediable breakdown of the marriage.”

Exceptions that affect the process

But even though the Court isn’t concerned with the specific reasons why you’re filing for divorce/dissolution of domestic partnership, certain exceptions can affect the subsequent process. For example, Family Code Section 3044 sets out a presumption against sole or joint custody of a child for someone found by a Court to have committed erectile dysfunction domestic violence against the other party or the child(ren) in the last five (5) years.

Domestic violence can also be a factor in the division of property during a divorce/dissolution of partnership proceeding, with the victim of violence potentially being given more than the traditional 50 percent split of community property.

Another question I usually get is how long my divorce/dissolution of domestic partnership will take. Whether there can be an amicable settlement or there are contested matters, in California, there is a six-month waiting period before the Court will terminate the couple’s marital/partnership status. But even with this mandatory waiting period, two parties in a dissolution action can move forward with all the necessary paperwork and processed by the Court prior to the end of the six-month waiting period, and, while the marriage/partnership will be deemed terminated at the six-month mark, other issues (e.g. child custody, support, property/debt division) can be ordered as promptly as when the Judge signs the Judgment of Dissolution. In other words, important matters don’t have to get put on hold during this mandatory waiting period.

In general, I believe the “no-fault” provision is a good thing. Two people who no longer wish to remain married shouldn’t be forced to stay together. And requiring that some definitive act or event must occur to justify the divorce (as was necessary in the past) only causes more emotional pain for everyone involved (including children whose own future personal relationships may be influenced by what they witness from their own parents) – a situation that does no one any good.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

Is There Such a Thing as an Amicable Divorce?

By its very nature, a divorce proceeding is an adversarial event. But adversarial doesn’t have to be the same thing as bitter or filled with antagonism.

With the high cost of litigation—not to mention the potentially devastating emotional damage on spouses, partners and their families—it makes sense for the parties involved to try and step back, look to the future and consider a time when all this will be behind them. Doing so may lead the parties to push aside their personal feelings about each other and come up with answers to the various issues raised by their impending dissolution.

Generally speaking, the less complicated the issues are, the more likely it is divorcing parties can reach an amicable resolution. By “less,” I mean situations where a marriage hasn’t lasted very long or involves no children and little property to divide. By comparison, marriages that have endured for several decades, involve numerous offspring and include episodes of domestic violence are far more difficult to end in anything like a friendly manner.

Based on my own experience as a family law attorney, I believe there is always hope for an amicable resolution. In one uplifting recent situation, a husband and wife with four children, huge disparities in income and a mountain of debt, nonetheless succeeded in handling their divorce as cleanly and expeditiously as possible. Both partners were working professionals who still had feelings for each other, but realized they could no longer live together. Upon making the decision to separate for good, they entered discussions with a couple of key principles in mind:

  1. When dealing with children, try as hard as you can to set aside your personal feelings and do what’s best for them. For example, if your job compels you to travel frequently or work 60 hours or more a week, with little to no flexibility in your work schedule, you probably shouldn’t get stuck up on arguing for primary physical custody, knowing you likely won’t be available to attend to your children’s continuous physical well-being.
  2. While making arrangements to dissolve a marriage or partnership, understand this isn’t the end of the world. No matter how painful things are right now, there is light at the end of the tunnel and a time will come when you can put these troubling emotions behind you.

In the case I’m talking about, the two people were concerned about how quickly legal fees can escalate when negotiating a divorce. They wanted to minimize the costs involved and the traumatic effect divorce would have on their children. In the end, the husband willingly agreed to pay more in support, so his ex-wife could remain in their marital residence until their kids had graduated from high school.

It may not seem like it at the time, but both parties in a divorce proceeding have a lot of control over how things work out. For one thing, consider the wisdom of arguing with your estranged spouse about who gets ownership of a $500 treadmill against the thousands of dollars in fees it will take to get things your way.

Divorce is never easy, but by keeping emotions under control and looking ahead to a brighter future, it needn’t become a permanently embittering experience.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

How Does a Child Support Order Get Enforced?

The principle behind laws regarding child support in California is very simple. The parents of children born in the course of a marriage (or conceived out of wedlock) are legally responsible for the financial support of their offspring, regardless of whether or not those parents are living with their child(ren).

Typically, an order for child support is issued by the Court by agreement of the parties or after a Court hearing, where the judge has determined that one party is entitled to receive assistance from the other party in financial support for their child. These child support orders can arise in proceedings for divorce, dissolution of domestic partnership, paternity, or one partner’s petition for the establishment of custody of the child.

Whatever the circumstances, once a child support order has been issued, the supporting parent is legally obliged to obey that order. Failure to do so can be deemed by the Court as willful non-compliance, which can lead to contempt proceedings and, if the supporting parent is found guilty, may be punishable by time in jail.

Enforcement options

Of course, when it comes to enforcing a child support order, things don’t always go smoothly. Once the custodial parent has a court order, she (for purposes of this discussion) has different options for ensuring that order gets enforced. She can hire an attorney to enforce the order or a private child support collection agency to service that debt. The collection agency works much the same as similar agencies charged with collecting credit card or other types of debts. They can garnish that person’s wages, put a lien on property, etc. But they almost always charge a fee for their services.

Another option for enforcing a child support order is using the Department of Child Support Services (DCSS). Utilizing DCSS has advantages and drawbacks. First off, its services are free. Also, DCSS is connected to multiple state government agencies, such as the Employment Development Department and the Department of Motor Vehicles—meaning they have access to records that can be very useful in collection activities against a non-paying supporting parent. DCSS can also:

  • File a petition to establish and/or enforce a child support order
  • Report the failure to provide child support to credit agencies, increasing the difficulty for the supporting parent to get a loan
  • Put a hold on that parent’s bank account
  • Attach a lien on that parent’s property or vehicle
  • Ask an employer to garnish wages
  • Confiscate IRS tax refunds
  • Suspend a driver’s, professional and/or recreational license
  • Assist the Court in issuing an arrest warrant

The chief disadvantage in relying on DCSS to enforce a child support order is that, like all government agencies, it’s overworked and understaffed. With recent cutbacks in government spending, DCSS has downsized its personnel and struggled to keep pace with state-of-the-art computer technology. Going through DCSS, therefore, requires a lot of patience, since results may be a long time coming.

A lot depends on the specific nature of the child support order. A family law firm like mine does have a great deal of enforcement tools at our disposal, such as processing and serving a wage garnishment order on the supporting parent’s employer, in order to enforce the child support order. If you feel you need assistance in the enforcement of your child support order, I would suggest you contact an attorney to explore your options.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

What Happens to Child and Spousal Support When an Ex-Spouse Remarries?

There’s a common misconception about how a person’s support obligation changes after an ex-spouse remarries. For purposes of this discussion, let’s say Joe is paying child support to his ex-wife, Traci, for their daughter Angela. After a year or so of being on her own, Traci meets, falls in love with and marries a plastic surgeon. Almost overnight, Traci’s lifestyle undergoes a transformation. From being a single, working mother on her own, she’s now a stay-at-home mom living in a multi-million-dollar home.

Doesn’t it seem like Joe’s child support payments should end now that Traci and Angela are living the good life? Under California law—and with slight variations in most other states—the answer is: No.

The child support order made at the time of the divorce is generally based on the respective incomes of the two parties. This order can be modified for such reasons as a change in the supporting parent’s income. If that income decreases significantly (say, Joe loses his job as a forklift operator at Home Depot), he can petition the Court to change the amount of child support he’s required to pay. If his income increases (he’s named manager of forklift operators), he can alert Traci and offer to raise the amount of monthly payment, or Traci can petition the Court for increased support.

But as far as seeking to terminate child support payments because Traci is now a plastic surgeon’s wife? This change has little to no effect on the original healthsavy.com child support order. Traci’s new husband may voluntarily help support Angela, but because she’s not his biological child, he’s not legally obliged to do so.

Spousal support (formerly called “alimony”) is an altogether different story.

According to California Family Code Section 4337, “Except as otherwise agreed by the parties in writing, the obligation of a party under an order for the support of the other party terminates upon the death of either party or the remarriage of the other party.” In other words, unless an agreement had been made to the contrary, Traci’s remarriage automatically ends Joe’s obligation to pay spousal support.

A Final Point: there are cases where the supported spouse lives with a new partner for a substantial period of time, but isn’t officially married—in which case, spousal support payments have to continue as usual. For this reason, as part of any divorce agreement, a supporting spouse should request that “non-platonic cohabitation” with another person, with or without a duration period defined, will also terminate the supporting spouse’s spousal support obligation. This helps clarify the situation and may have a significant legal impact on the termination of a spousal support obligation.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

How Does the Court Determine Child Visitation Privileges?

In California, there is a presumption that, in general, a mother and father (or domestic partners) can work together to raise a child together, even after they no longer live together in the same household. This is called “joint legal custody” and it involves collaborating on decisions that directly affect the health, welfare, education and religion of the child (or children).

That’s one aspect of child custody. The other key component is called “physical custody,” relating to where the child actually lives and who takes care of him or her on a daily basis. Whether by a parenting plan agreement reached by both parties or through a court decision made due to a dispute of the parents, one of the two parties will be designated “primary physical custodian.” The conditions of that parent’s custody are subject to whatever visitation rights the other person receives—rights which can range from “no visitation” (in those rare cases where one party’s even seeing the child is deemed to be detrimental to the child’s best interests) up to equal periods of time with each parent.

Types of visitation include:

  • “Reasonable visitation” – The most common form of visitation, these rights can vary from visiting the child on weekends and alternating holidays to an equal timeshare (where each party has, in effect, equal rights of reasonable visitation with the child). A primary physical custodian is generally selected by the Court to cover a few critical areas, such as school placement of the child. This primary physical custodian is entitled to declare the child as a tax exemption and as a dependent on their income taxes—unless there is a prior agreement to the contrary.
  • “Restricted (supervised) visitation” – In these cases, the Court determines the child cannot be left alone with one party, so the other parent or a third party (friend, family member, social worker) must be present to supervise the visit. This can happen when the Court adhd decides that someone must be present to witness interactions between the child and the visiting parent, in the event of future legal disputes regarding child visitation rights, or just to make sure that there is a peaceful and, hopefully, meaningful visitation between a parent and a child.

An effective parenting plan should include provisions for regular visits (weekly, biweekly, monthly) as well as on holidays and vacation time with the child. The schedule can be different for different children in the family, such as situations when each child is on a different school schedule, or when children have different extracurricular schedules.

When determining the parties’ respective future rights to custody and visitation, the Court usually looks for answers to the following questions:

  • How were the two parties taking care of the child before the divorce proceedings began and since then?
  • Who has been the primary physical custodian?
  • Is the current arrangement working? Can it continue to work? Is it truly in the child’s best interests?

Obviously, the two parties involved may have differing answers to these questions, which then leads to the Court stepping in and deciding for the both of them.

In my opinion, the two parties in a divorce proceeding (or dissolution of domestic partnership) should do everything they can to attempt to work out a parenting plan agreement between themselves. After all, who knows the best interests of their child better than they do? When they can’t work it out, the decision is left up to a judge who doesn’t know either party or the child involved. And a prolonged legal dispute makes the whole experience more expensive, time-consuming and emotionally turbulent for everyone involved.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from bankruptcy, family law and estate planning to traffic violations and landlord/tenant disputes.

Who Gets the Family Pet After a Divorce?

Disputes over personal property are common in most divorce proceedings. Any family law attorney can likely tell you about clients who argued endlessly over who should get possession of a treadmill that’s been sitting in the basement for years (unused). Ironically, purchasing a new treadmill would often be less expensive than the legal fees incurred by haggling over the old one in court.

When a beloved family pet is involved, this kind of dispute takes on another dimension entirely. Many people consider their furry cat or sweet-tempered mutt members of the family and sometimes these animals get treated better than a child. When both parties feel the pet they share is irreplaceable, the issue can become highly contentious.

Most courts in California treat the family pet as a piece of personal property with specific monetary value. How is a pet’s value determined? Both parties can submit “documentation of valuation” (for example, a Craigslist pet-for-sale listing) or they can agree to an objective third-party appraisal. As an alternative, many courts will accept an agreement regarding a pet’s custody and support, as long as both individuals agree on the specific arrangements. Courts generally will not make pet custody and support orders without such an agreement, even if both parties request the Court to do so.

Ultimately, if the two parties cannot agree on who gets the pet and/or its value, the Judge reviews the evidence, makes a determination and awards it to one party or the other at what the Judge feels is the pet’s pain relief fair market value. This determination will be offset by some other piece of property, or equalization payment, given to the individual who does not get the pet.

One of my first divorce cases involved a dispute over a horse. Both parties cared deeply about the horse. Everything else in their case had been easily resolved, including custodial provisions of the couple’s two children, but neither side would budge over possession of the horse—nor would they accept a joint custody agreement similar to what was in place for the children. Finally, the other party’s attorney and I convinced our clients that the respective costs to each of them if the case went to trial would be exorbitant—and that the final decision rested with a judge who probably never had taken care of a horse, never forged an emotional bond with a horse and might not even own a pet in the first place. This persuaded the warring parties to come back to the table and work out a joint custody plan.

As I regularly tell my clients, digging your heels in over a piece of personal property (including a pet) generally ends up costing you more money in legal fees and costs than the personal property actually is worth.

Are you in need of legal counseling for divorce or dissolution of a domestic partnership? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.

What Happens at a Mandatory Settlement Conference?

During the course of a family law matter, such as divorce, legal separation or dissolution of domestic partnership, many California courts offer the option of a scheduled “settlement conference.” In some counties, including San Diego, this is a mandatory proceeding, should the parties be unable to resolve their dispute among themselves. It is, in essence, a last-ditch effort to come to an agreement before proceeding to a formal trial.

If a case proceeds to this point, the parties or their attorneys are required to “meet and confer” prior to the settlement conference date. Attorneys may confer in person or by phone or email to narrow down what issues have already been settled and what issues remain unresolved. The goal is to frame the actual settlement conference, so everyone involved can focus on what’s truly in dispute at that time.

In preparation for a settlement conference, the Court will appoint one or more “settlement conference judges” (attorneys who volunteer to assist in the process). After the “meet and confer” process is completed, both sides must prepare settlement conference briefs to give to the settlement judge and share with the opposing party. Generally, these briefs include an overall summary of the case to date, including issues to be presented, each party’s position and/or proposals and, lastly, any documentation in support of the party’s position. As I tell my clients, while they’re called “briefs,” there’s nothing brief about them!

On the date of the settlement conference, the parties and attorneys show up in court, check in with the department where the case is being heard and listen to a few words offered by the courtroom Judge (not the same as the settlement judge). Then the parties, attorneys and settlement judge begin their meeting and attempt to work out a settlement of all disputed issues. The settlement judge doesn’t have the power to render decisions; he or she is there solely to help facilitate an agreement. If by the end of the conference, parties can reach a settlement, in part or in whole, usually the Court will allow them to put everything on the record. If they’re unable to reach agreement, the Court then sets a trial date to resolve the dispute.

Mandatory Settlement Conferences generally have no costs beyond your attorney fees. It is certainly worth exploring as an alternative to going to trial. Speaking from experience, it’s almost always better to compromise to something you can accept, than to roll the dice and put your issues before a Judge, who may or may not know all of the factors when coming to a decision on your substantive issues such as child custody and division of property, a decision that may effect the rest of your life.

Are you in need of legal counseling for divorce or dissolution of a domestic partnership? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.