Firm News & Updates

How to Negotiate College Payment between Divorcing Parents

College is expensive, and the costs will no doubt continue to rise. Even if your child is not of college age, you are smart to consider these anticipated expenses at the time of your divorce. Do not wait until acceptance letters start arriving to address college payments with your ex-spouse. Negotiate the cost of college now so that you will both be prepared when the time comes.

How to Negotiate College Payment between Divorcing Parents

Put it in Writing

First, understand that neither you nor your child’s co-parent are obligated to pay for college. For many families, college is simply unaffordable or would require substantial borrowing and resulting student loan debt. A court would not require a parent to take on that type of debt for their (adult) children. Because children are no longer “minors” when attending college, a parent’s duty to support a child through college is a voluntary one. However, the court will enforce a stipulated court order to support adult children or a contract between former spouses to do so.

With that said, do not rely on verbal agreements when it comes to college payments. College tuition is likely to be one of the most expensive investments in your children’s lives. For those who are not fortunate enough to have a fully funded 529 college savings account for your child, your best opportunity to negotiate a fair apportionment of the future cost is at the time of the divorce settlement.

Many parents are hesitant to do so and take a “wait and see” approach based on many factors including, a child’s future likelihood of success at college or confidence in a parent’s financial ability to contribute to an expense many years in the future. One cannot know what circumstances lie ahead such as job loss, economic downturn or a health crisis, all of which could detrimentally impact a parent’s ability to contribute to this sizeable future expense. Consider these possibilities before you enter into an agreement or order which cannot be modified or made contingent.

Determine Who Pays for What

There are various ways to determine who should pay for which college expenses. The simplest arrangement is to agree to split all costs 50-50, which assumes you have the same economic ability to contribute as your Ex. Another option is for one parent to pay for tuition while the other parent pays for the likely less expensive room and board. Items to consider when splitting costs, in addition to tuition and boarding, include books, fees, health expenses, lab and extra-curricular expenses, travel expenses, and possibly a stipend for the student for cell and internet connection, necessities or spending money.

Payments, Caps, and Limitations

Once you have determined how much money is needed for college and who will pay, determine how this will be paid, and put that in writing. One option is to set up an escrow account. Each parent can be required to submit a set payment per month. In some cases, a parent may opt to make a lump payment that is then invested in a college savings account while the child is young. These “529” accounts provide a number of benefits but have restrictions on how the money will be spent, so do your homework.

Payment caps and other restrictions may be a consideration for some families. You may want to place a cap on the maximum number of years that you will pay for a child’s college education. This will prevent you from being expected to support a college student for an indefinite amount of time. You should cover whether graduate school is included or not. A limit on the amount of money a parent will contribute per semester is also an option. An important point also to include in your agreement is whether full-time student status or a certain academic GPA is required to trigger the obligation for a contribution from the parents. I have seen a college payment provision backfire on the well-intended parents when a student opts to register for one class a semester over many years or consistently keeps failing grades but yet a parent is obligated to continue supporting them. Also, is art or trade school considered college in your agreement? Being specific will set expectations for everyone.

Require Insurance in Your Agreement

Life is unpredictable, and there is the chance that a parent will pass away, become disabled, or lose their job at some point after the divorce and before the child goes to college. This is where life insurance and disability insurance come into play. If anything happens to either parent, having insurance in place could help ensure the child’s college education will be protected financially.

The lesson here is to consider all of the options and consult with an experienced divorce attorney to help you negotiate the best arrangement to ensure your child’s educational future is safe.

Getting Divorced: Commonly Asked Questions Answered

Divorce can be a challenging emotional, as well as financial, process, and the desire to complete the process in a discrete, affordable way is a priority for many. How long does it take to get a divorce? Can you settle your divorce outside of court? Will the divorce records be available to the public? Let’s address those three very common concerns and questions.

Getting Divorced_ Commonly Asked Questions Answered

How Long Does Divorce Take in California?

Before filing for divorce in California, you must first meet the mandatory residency requirements. State law requires residency in California for six months and in the filing county for three months. If these requirements have been met, the minimum mandatory waiting period after service of the initial pleadings is six months. If the divorce is “uncontested” and an agreement is reached which results in a settlement of all issues raised in the divorce action, a Stipulated Judgment may be submitted to the court earlier than the six-month period. However, the court will hold the Stipulated Judgment until the mandatory minimum waiting period is met.

In my experience, time flies and six months is shorter than it may first seem. It is atypical that a divorce is completed within the mandatory waiting period and most divorces take much longer. Disclosure requirements and resolution of outstanding issues often take more than six months to achieve. However, at a minimum, your marital status can be terminated at the six-month mark. Other issues, such as property division, child support, and custody agreements, can be determined separately at a later date.

Can Divorce be Settled Out of Court?

The vast majority of divorces in California are settled outside of court. Statistics show that as many as 95% of all divorce cases are settled by a written agreement of the parties without having a judge decide the claims. This high settlement rate is likely due to the emotional toll the process takes, as well as the great expense in professional fees generated preparing for trial. Many people decide that the certainty achieved in reaching a settlement outweighs the potential “upside” of what can be gained by litigation on a contested issue.

Nothing stops litigants from sitting together at the kitchen table and working through the issues on their own to achieve an acceptable and fair outcome. To the extent disclosure, direct communication and compromise are possible for two divorcing parties, a Stipulated Judgment resolving the divorce by written agreement can be achieved in several different “low impact” and cost-efficient ways, from use of the self-help center to a paralegal service to online divorce.

Notwithstanding these options, many of the cases I see need the “next level” of legal consultation or representation and simply require the involvement of a family law attorney. At times, legal assistance is needed because the personalities involved are conflictual. Other times the legal or factual issues are complex. One party lacks familiarity with the financial landscape of the community estate or holds concerns regarding sharing custodial time with the other parent. These can all be barriers to reaching a swift and simplified divorce settlement. Some matters require additional investigation and analysis or potentially the involvement of an expert to aid in reaching a resolution.

Even in these instances, however, alternative dispute resolution forums such as Mediation or Collaborative Divorce are good options. Collaborative Divorce is similar to Mediation insofar as the collaborative process is enveloped in a mediation privilege and is aimed at reaching a compromise, but instead of using a mediator, both parties have their own “collaborative” attorneys. They use one financial expert (i.e. an accountant) and one or two therapeutic “coaches” to make the process of facilitating an agreement as smooth as possible.

Absent these alternative forums, family law practitioners representing clients in a divorce may utilize a privately hired judge (typically a retired judicial officer) to act as a short-term settlement officer to assist the parties and counsel in negotiating and brokering an agreement on all issues in a private setting. This format, often referred to colloquially as a “voluntary settlement conference,” is one of the most effective ways to resolve a contested case without the need for protracted and expensive litigation.

Are Divorce Records Public?

Divorce records are publicly available in the state of California. Pleadings submitted in the course of the divorce litigation are also publicly available in the court file if the records are not sealed. The fact that personal and private information is publicly available is one key reason to consider reaching agreements outside of court, such as by stipulation and/or through alternative dispute resolution. It is anticipated that the Los Angeles County Family Law record system will soon be electronically available, which means litigants and interested professionals will have online access to these records.

Hopefully, this information will answer some of your early concerns as you begin this legal process. Divorce can be stressful. Doing your homework in advance should aid is always recommended.

OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center’s Walk ‘n’ Run for Hope

In Los Angeles each spring, more than 1,200 people come together to walk or run a 5-K race in memory and celebration of a loved one who has died. The annual Run for Hope hosted by OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, which takes place this year on Sunday, April 28, 2019, fosters a powerful connection among grievers by allowing them to honor the memory of their loved ones while providing the community with hope and celebration. It is a unique day to share grief, loss, and love.

 

Each year, I form a team to run/walk the Run for Hope and raise money for the invaluable services that OUR HOUSE provides. Team Robyn supports literally THOUSANDS of grieving children, teens, and adults as they endeavor to cope with a painful and lifelong loss.

When asked how I know OUR HOUSE, I describe my affection and appreciation for this organization following the unexpected death of my father over 10 years ago. I talk about how grief is hidden in our society and death is a taboo subject. I describe how people are simply not prepared for the intensity of grief and the duration of the grief process, nor how to support others who are grieving.

I explain that grievers share a common bond which sets them apart but can also feel terribly isolating. I introduce many to OUR HOUSE, possibly for the first time, as rare jewel – a place where people can talk openly about all the thoughts and feelings which inevitably surface after someone close has died. A place to get support from fellow grievers that they cannot get anywhere else. A refuge in the storm. To further that common bond, groups at OUR HOUSE are organized according to age and familial relationship to the griever. There is a place for all ages at OUR HOUSE, including grievers as young as 5 years old.

Honored by OUR HOUSE in 2018, Dan Fogelman, the television series creator of This is Us, recently described the impact of grief and loss on his groundbreaking work.

“I never imagined that I was writing something about getting past losing somebody … it was only stepping back from a bunch of the things I’d worked on that I realized I was writing some stuff that I probably wasn’t strong enough to talk about in therapy…. While I’m no expert on grief or loss, I’m able to watch myself from above as I realize some stuff would make a really good TV show or movie … What you all are doing [at OUR HOUSE] so clearly helps give people the tools — people of all ages and of all kinds of loss — to help turn the brutal into the beautiful.” – recipient of the Good Grief Award, 2018 House of Hope Gala

I love talking about OUR HOUSE and telling those who do not know that the agency is comprised not only of grief groups for children and adults (including school groups and programs for Spanish-speaking grievers) but also of On-sight Grief Response, grief education for mental health, and medical professionals, and a grief summer camp (Camp Erin) which was showcased in the 2014 HBO Emmy-award winning documentary, One Last Hug. With the help of trained volunteers, OUR HOUSE served, educated and reached nearly 20,000 adults, teens, and children in 2018 alone.

Now a committed board member since 2015, I have been actively involved in OUR HOUSE since 2008 when I helped form the Associate Board – a group of young professionals who wanted to become involved in philanthropy and give back in support the agency. I had the privilege of working as a team side by side with a committed group to support this organization through fundraising and ambassadorship, as well as the production of Faces of Grief – a short video we produced for OUR HOUSE in 2011.

Simply put, OUR HOUSE provides a lifeline to grievers, allowing them the opportunity to laugh, cry, share, and heal alongside those who understand. Please tell someone who you think may want to know about this wonderful resource in our greater Los Angeles community.

What to Do to Protect Yourself Via Technology in a Divorce

From shared on-line accounts to cell phone family plans, technology and divorce overlap in a myriad of ways. Consider it essential to separate and start fresh the landscape of your digital life. Here are seven areas of technology not to neglect as you separate from your spouse.

Email Correspondence

To ensure your communications with your lawyer are confidential, you need a new designated email address with a secured password, such as a Gmail account (which a former client of mine affectionately called his “D-mail” account). In the paperless age, this will also keep you organized for the onslaught of paperwork coming your way. Avoid using a work email for private legal communications about your divorce because you do not want to find out later that your employer owns and/or has privy to all of these communications, documents, and details. You will want to keep communications and documents for future use which could become cumbersome to transfer or lost altogether if you change jobs. Having ready access to a private printer and scanner will also streamline the legal piece of your case and keep cost and aggravation to a minimum.

New Apple ID/Google ID

These often work on the “family” plan concept so be mindful that without creating your own separate profile, your spouse may have cloud access to your location, your calendar, your text messages, and your photos. Separating spouses will also want to remove themselves from any shared Cloud plans as this information no longer should be “shared” in the same way. One divorcing mom once told me how she had taken photos of critical financial documents she located in her divorce preparations, only to have those photos pop up on her spouse’s photostream, signaling her intent. Yikes! A word to the wise.

Cell Phones

If you and your spouse are on the same phone plan, it is time to separate the accounts. Better yet, change carriers altogether given that you can take your cellphone number with you. This will protect the cross-sharing of phone records by separating billing. Delete from your cell phone any strange apps you do not recognize and disable apps like the Find my iPhone app that can pinpoint your physical location. Access to a cell phone can be a major source of control between spouses. State law has recently expanded protections for domestic violence victims, including confirming sole use of cell phone numbers, accounts, and billing to the victim, as well as orders for the victim’s bill to be paid by the abuser for the term of the order.

Passwords

Technology permeates every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and as such, it is essential to change your multitude of passwords when divorcing. From Amazon to Netflix to everything in between, every one of your passwords needs to be changed. Make sure your password recovery system is not being sent to a spouse’s email. Consider changing your security questions for password recovery as well. Select passwords which are not easy to guess (for those who know you well!), do not use the same password for every account and consider using a password generator. Use your Notes app (which you can lock with its own password or fingerprint) or an app such as Dashlane to store new passwords securely.

Social Media

In addition to changing your social media passwords, now is a good time to audit your accounts for content. Public social media accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) are fair game when it comes to custody disputes and other court cases. Remove any social posts which do not serve you and remain cautious on future postings as well.

Text Messages

Similarly, be cognizant that text messages can be saved and presented to the court, living on far after the emotion which inspired them has died down. I have heard judges say they give substantial weight to text messages because they are considered “unedited” and revealing about a party’s credibility. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, text messages are one of the top three electronic elements used in divorce court. Simply put, never text something to your co-parent you would not want a judge to read. Also, save and print all text records that may be of value. Never rely on your phone to automatically hold them.

CoParenting Issues

Finally, if there is a likelihood of high conflict parenting in your case, consider a co-parenting app, such as Our Family Wizard, to help streamline interactions and merge schedules. These apps have shared custody schedules, secure messaging, expense management and file storage for family data such as immunizations. They are most often used between parents who have a difficult time communicating and offer “tone” meters as well as tracking of when emails are opened which creates some transparency and accountability.

De-coupling is never completely clean, and often far from easy. Yet protecting yourself against privacy breaches is something you can start right away and finish completely on your own.

Why Self-Care is Essential in Divorce

Whether you initiated separation or the divorce came as a complete (and unwelcome) surprise, not prioritizing self-care in the process can contribute to a tougher time getting through the process or even lasting “divorce trauma.” In this month where so many are abuzz with love, romance and happily-ever-after, spotting these triggers and strategizing around them will pay dividends for you.

Put on your own air mask before helping others.

Many people view self-care as synonymous with being selfish. It is the opposite if you are going through the gut-wrenching pain of a divorce. Sadness, anger, confusion, guilt, helplessness, fear, rejection, blame, and loss of a dream – just about every color of the emotional rainbow will surface before this process is said and done. The trick is to not get stuck in these feelings for longer than need be. Now is the time to develop a dedicated self-care practice if you have never had one.

You must go through it to get through it.

I am a big believer in reminding my clients that this will end (eventually) and they will be happy (again). However, “this too shall pass” is hard to grasp onto especially when the legal part of the dissolution seems to be taking forever to conclude. While a spike in both anxiety and depression is to be expected in any phase of the proceedings, there are numerous techniques and tools to use right away to manage your emotions so you that you can focus on completing this difficult chapter.

Why Self-Care is Essential in Divorce

Self-Care in Divorce

  • Developing or turning back to a consistent spiritual practice. Prayer, meditation, gratitude journaling, spending time in nature or around beautiful art or music. Connecting with a wonderful friend. Visioning your new life. Whatever gives you a sense of short-term calm and long-term hopefulness is the goal.
  • Using fitness and physical activity to combat anxiety and clear the mind. Physiological explanations abound for this phenomenon. Ours is not to ask why exercise helps, it just does. Whatever high or low impact work out appeals to you, this is one of the fastest and most consistent ways to turn around ruminating and catastrophizing, and the unrelenting “what ifs”. When in doubt, reach for the mind-body connection.
  • Having boundaries – with yourself. Being overtaken by day-to-day, uncontrolled worry will do no one any favors. In her recent article about why you need a “divorce curfew,” Los Angeles therapist Virginia Gilbert, MFT, explains why “there is nothing good that comes from focusing on your divorce after 8 p.m.” By that same token, I suggest setting a time each week to think about your divorce, dispense with “divorce homework”, communicate with your lawyer the questions you have been saving up, and organize your thoughts and “to dos” on paper. If you have dedicated times to deal with your divorce each week, you may be less prone to periodic and intrusive thoughts outside those designated times, knowing that you will have “thought time” later. Keeping a journal by your bedside is an invaluable way to memorialize some of those fleeting questions and ideas you will want to re-visit with your lawyer or therapist.
  • Having more boundaries – with well-intentioned others. I also suggest becoming conscious of those with whom you share your divorce story as it is unfolding. Divorce is one area where a lot of unsolicited advice is doled out, as well as not-so-productive “life comparing” amongst friends, relatives, and even acquaintances. Not everyone got through their divorce unscathed and many people carry significant emotional baggage even years after-the-fact. You can spot this unhealed pain because those with “divorce trauma” will want (and need) to tell you their story and “warn” you of many outcomes which, in reality, have no application to you. Their circumstances are not your circumstances – and these encounters can be very needlessly anxiety-provoking. Remember that your individual journey is unique. Sorting through the legal concerns you have with your attorney and through the emotional concerns you have with your therapist and getting the individual attention you need to your specific issues, are the safer bet.
  • Managing (your own) expectations. Divorce is not fun, but it is also not a permanent state. In California, the mandatory waiting period is 6 months from filing and service to Judgment. However, the average length of a mostly uncontested divorce is approximately 1 – 2 years. Although daunting, it takes time to properly gather information, evaluate claims, and attempt to resolve differences in even a “simple” divorce. It also takes time to emotionally unravel the ties that bind. I have seen many a simple divorce sit informally “on hold” for months and years until both people are truly ready to tackle the uncoupling. On the other hand, I have seen many clients transform themselves from the inside out during their divorce. A weekend trip out of town can do wonders to shift perspective. A retreat or self-improvement course can spark inspiration for life ‘after’.

While it is good to keep your expectations realistic during the process, keeping your sanity is just as important. During this challenging time, do not skimp on, nor feel guilty about, self-care.

Considering Mediation for Your Divorce? My Top Three Tips

Hello 2019! A new year for us all and a fresh start for many. January is one of the busier times for family law attorneys, as the revelry of the holidays has passed, children head back to school and the new year’s resolutions kick in. People are ready to turn over a new leaf or get down to business. This may include initiating or making progress on a family law matter. Exploring mediation for your divorce is advisable. Mediation can be the kinder, gentler approach, as well as the more economical one in finalizing your matter. For certain, there are many benefits and some pitfalls, too, to this popular out-of-court option. I want to share my top three tips to start you on the road to success in using mediation for your divorce.

Tip #1: Obtain several referrals for family law mediators from trusted sources and then do your homework.

Although emotions may be running high, selection of the mediator is often the first joint decision you make with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. Yet, one size does not fit all. Wide variability among mediators exists in style, training, philosophy, experience, and practical “hands-on” skill in the art of negotiation. Get multiple referrals from people who had a good experience in mediation and from attorneys in family law or other related fields.

If you are facing a family law dispute, the task before you is daunting. While it may feel easier to hire the first (and maybe only) person referred to you, avoid making a snap decision or not doing some due diligence. After all, you are new to this process and would have no reasonable basis of comparison if you do not investigate your options.

All mediators are not created equally so interview at least 2-3 before deciding. Understand that because mediators are inherently neutral, they will typically not meet you or have substantive conversations outside the presence of both parties.

Once mediation for your divorce begins, frequently mediators work to make joint decisions regarding finances or custody rather quickly to achieve common ground and build trust in the process. While speed and efficiency are two of the primary benefits of mediation, once the process has started, it can be very challenging and/or expensive to change mediators. It is far better in my view to have a comfort level on the front end and select the right professional from the beginning.

Tip #2: Obtain a family law attorney for “as needed” consultation.

Use them early and often throughout the process for your own education and to help you make smart decisions in mediation.

Understand this critical fact right from the start: your mediator will not advocate for you or represent your interest in the divorce. Your mediator will facilitate obtaining an agreement (on issues big and small) between you and your former spouse. Creativity abounds and the law may be only a guide. Consultation at the outset with your own attorney who understands your objectives (and your blind spots) is well advised.

There is a push to make early, preliminary agreements in mediation that can be very difficult to “undo” down the road, even though the ramifications to you were not fully understood at the time. You can lose goodwill or damage your credibility by even trying to re-visit agreements you made when you were only vaguely knowledgeable about what the law provides or what would serve your best interest.

I see this scenario all too often in my consulting cases when “turning back time” on unfair preliminary agreements (whether made in writing or not) is very tricky or not an option. The problem I see is that people often wait until the “the end” of the process or after significant momentum has been built to utilize their consulting counsel. Many people do not want to incur the cost or upset their former spouse by obtaining a side consultation (and this goes double for those cases where there is an imbalance of power or control issues). Finances may still be merged and the fact that you are obtaining a private one-on-one consultation with your own counsel may not be so private. However, understanding what the law provides is your right and evaluating your best-case and worst-case scenarios with a trusted advocate consistently can only serve your interest in the long run.

 

Tip #3: Understand you will be compromising.

Mediation is not for everyone, but it is for those who seek privacy and a “bipartisan” and fair result at hopefully a lower cost. Many people report a greater sense of satisfaction and buy-in to mediated settlement agreements. Yet, understand that you will be asked to make a series of compromises, both big and small, to serve the greater good – an out of court resolution to your dissolution.

Determine what your goals and non-negotiables are at the beginning. Because mediation is confidential, you will be able to explore the give-and-take process freely. In the end, you must weigh the pluses and minuses of the decisions reached.

Considering mediation for your divorce can be one of the best decisions that you will make during the process. Use the tips above to help make it easier for yourself and your entire family.

OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center in the news

Camp Erin, an invaluable resource for children grieving the death of a close family member, held its second 2016 session this past weekend in Malibu.  I was fortunate to be a camp counselor at Camp Erin the summer of 2012 during the filming of the Emmy-award winning documentary, “One Last Hug” and am so glad to see the camp run by OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center again in the news as featured by  CBS 2 Morning News, Santa Monica Daily Press, Los Angeles Daily News, and La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language daily newspaper in Los Angeles.

Also, hats off to OUR HOUSE clinician Debbie Weisberg, MFT, for her poignant interview this week on the effects of childhood grief, featured on my favorite morning radio show, 89.3 KPCC’s “Take Two” with Alex Cohen and A Martinez. You can catch the full interview here.

I love being a part of OUR HOUSE and am proud to serve on the Board of Directors of an active, thriving organization that serves an unmet need of a large cross-section of the greater Los Angeles community. The success of OUR HOUSE in largely attributable to its dedicated volunteers who serve as grief group facilitators. If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities, click here for details on an upcoming September 2016 training.