GLOSSARY OF FAMILY LAW TERMINOLOGY
Marital Dissolution (Divorce)
The legal proceeding formerly known as a “Divorce” is now known under Washington law as a Dissolution of Marriage. This action dissolves the legal marital bond and allows both the husband and wife to emerge as single people.
Dissolution actions proceed for couples both with and without children. The calendar in King County takes about 10 months until a trial date; in Snohomish County, a request for a trial date is made to the Court, which usually results in trial being set within about six to nine months. Each case in King County is given a “Case Schedule” that provides a calendar of events leading up to trial; Snohomish County does not issue a “Case Schedule.” King and Snohomish Counties simply have different procedures and there is no relative advantage or disadvantage to either system.
In most cases, proceedings can be finalized by an out of court agreement. The minimum “waiting period” under the law before an agreed Dissolution of Marriage can be finalized is 90 days.
Four major issues in a Dissolution matter are:
1.Parenting Plan (child custody and residential schedule of visitation).
2.Child Support (including day care, health insurance, college expenses and other child-related costs).
3.Spousal Maintenance (formerly known as alimony).
4.Division of Property and Debt (can involve valuation of businesses and real estate).
Legal Separations are very similar to a Dissolution action, except that the parties remain married at the end of the proceedings. The main public policies providing for Legal Separations are to provide an alternative to Dissolution if, for example, parties object to a Dissolution for religious convictions or desire to retain marital health care insurance coverage for a spouse. Property, Spousal Maintenance and children’s issues are addressed in Legal Separations in basically the same way as they are in Dissolution cases.
Parenting Plan Modifications
When a “substantial change in circumstances” occurs in the “custody” of children, usually after a Dissolution has been finalized, parents can undertake a Modification of a Parenting Plan. The residential schedule governing when parents have time with their children can be adjusted or modified for as little as a few days per year (Minor Modification) or for a major shift to place children primarily with the other parent (Major Modification).
A type of Modification action (see above) occurs when one parent moves residences to a location that is different from what was contemplated in the original or previous Parenting Plan. Such a move can be within the same school district, a local move but outside of the children’s current school district, or to a more distant location. Whether a parent is moving across town or to a remote international location, provisions must be addressed to enable both parents to have a residential schedule with the children and to be properly notified of the move.
Child Support Modifications and Adjustments
Child Support is ordered according to parties’ incomes and set forth on a payment table approved by the state. Child Support is reviewable every two years by statute. Some Orders of Child Support provide for an even more frequent review of Child Support.
An increase, decrease or loss of income or other substantial changes in financial circumstances can justify a review of Child Support. When children attain the age of 12, they move into a “higher bracket” for Child Support, thus justifying an adjustment. Also, as children prepare to enter college or post-secondary educational programs, funding for these academic endeavors needs to be addressed. Child Support Modifications, including those that address post-secondary educational support issues (including trade or vocational schooling), must take place before Child Support terminates, which is generally prior to the child attaining the age of 18 or being no longer enrolled in high school (whichever occurs later).
Parentage Actions (Paternity Cases)
If you are a parent who was not married, you have rights and obligations regarding your children in much the same way as married parents do. A parentage legal action can establish a Parenting Plan in the best interests of the child, as well as an Order of Child Support.
The division of property and debt in a just and equitable manner is an important part of the Dissolution/Legal Separation process. Property Divisions need not be equal; disproportional divisions of community property are common. Often, experts will be retained to value assets or ownership interests in businesses, real estate and other investments. Separate property, such as assets acquired before the marriage, must also be considered. Allocation of debt between parties in a divorce is also an important part of addressing property issues.
Pre-Marital and Post-Marital Property Agreements
You may be well advised to draft a Pre-Marital or Post-Marital Property Agreement. Such Agreements set forth who owns particular items of property, both real and personal, as well as who is responsible for debts. Such contracts are valid both before a marriage occurs, as well as during a marriage. Sometimes, such Agreements are part of the Dissolution process but they can also be undertaken independently of a Dissolution or Legal Separation action. Also, those who live together with another person in a marital type of relationship may be well advised to execute a “Cohabitation Agreement.”
I favor Alternate Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) as a way to resolve the issues in your case while keeping emotional and financial costs to a minimum. Two main forms of ADR are mediation and arbitration. Mediation is voluntary and non-binding until a formal agreement is negotiated. Mediation can be conducted without attorneys and directly between the parties, under the direction of a trained mediator. Another type of mediation is a “Settlement Conference” that provides for attorneys to be present. Typically, the parties and their respective attorneys are in separate rooms, while the mediator “shuttles” between the parties with offers of settlement.
Arbitration is a binding process in which the outcome of an issue is determined by an arbitrator with a ruling. Under arbitration, the parties must abide by the decision of the arbitrator, just as they would a Judge in Court. Arbitration decisions can often be reviewed or appealed in the Court system.
A Dissolution can sometimes take a year to complete. During the pendency of a Dissolution case, it is often necessary to stabilize a situation with regard to finances, parenting issues, property and debt issues, and even an award of attorney’s fees. In order to stabilize a case “temporarily” until trial or a final agreement is reached, the Family Law Department in Court can establish Temporary Orders, upon Motion by either party. These Temporary Orders can include Parenting Plans, Orders of Child Support and other Orders.
Guardian ad Litem/Parenting Evaluator
In parenting cases, sometimes the parties cannot agree on a residential schedule or “visitation” plan that is in the best interests of the children. In such cases, the Court can appoint a Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”). This person is often a social worker or an attorney who will investigate parenting issues. A GAL can visit both parties’ homes, discuss parenting issues with the children and investigate issues with “collateral contacts” such as friends, relatives, teachers, etc. A GAL will report to the Court and make recommendations in the best interests of the children.
Similarly, a Parenting Evaluator will investigate all of the aforementioned issues, but does not report directly to the Court nor automatically attend hearings. A Parenting Evaluator typically will issue a detailed report with recommendations about residential provisions and possible restrictions on one or both parents.
The law provides for both parties to disclose financial and other information in an open and straightforward manner. Discovery includes the issuing of Subpoenas to banks, employers and other collateral contacts. Each party may also have to answer written questions called Interrogatories and provide documents in response to a Request for Production of Documents. Discovery also involves Depositions, which consist of an interview between the attorney and the opposing party or other possible witnesses, including experts. Depositions are conducted under oath and a written record is kept. Often, both parties will agree to conduct discovery informally and cooperatively in order to minimize the expense involved.
FEES AND COSTS
I recognize that legal services are expensive. Therefore, I will do my utmost to keep your expenses to a minimum; in fact, that is one of my ethical obligations to you.
“Fees” are paid for professional services, such as my time for drafting documents, making telephone calls, etc. “Costs” are generally for support expenses such as copy charges, messenger expenses and filing fees to the court.
I have a written Fee Agreement that I will give you at the outset of representation to explain these points in more detail. My Fee Agreement also outlines my duties to you and vice-versa. Please feel free to ask any questions about the Fee Agreement before signing it, as it is a binding contract.
It is ethically required that attorneys’ fees are charged at reasonable rates. I charge $300.00 per hour. To take on a new case, such as a Dissolution matter with children, I generally request that clients provide an advance fee deposit of $3,000.00, which is deposited in a trust account; this amount may vary depending upon the facts of your case. Your funds in the trust account belong to you and can only be paid to me after you have received a written bill each month and had time to review it. If any funds remain in the trust account at the conclusion of representation, you will receive a prompt refund. Please feel free to discuss financial arrangements and questions with me.
I also would be happy to provide you with a free introductory telephone consultation or in-person meeting concerning your legal issues; please give me a call at (425) 451-2900.