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You have many options available to you when facing the difficult decisions that a family law matter requires. When making those decisions, you will have to consider your resources, the impact on your family, the willingness of both parties to reach a negotiated settlement, and your ultimate goals. If you want the assistance of an attorney to help you through this difficult and emotional period, contact us to schedule your consultation.

My approach is to advise you of your rights and responsibilities, the probably outcome at court, and direct your to the best resources available. Once all the information is in, I will help you make informed decisions. Whether you decide to negotiate a settlement or fight in court, I have been practicing family law since 1996 and will be by your side every step of the way. Please call (916) 447-1092 to schedule your meeting with me. You can also email me.

  1. Do I need a lawyer?
  2. What should I expect if I represent myself?
  3. What is “Unbundling”(or Limited Scope Representation)?
  4. Can I get help from a paralegal?
  5. Is mediation a good idea?
  6. What is Collaborative Law?
  7. What am I facing in my divorce?
  8. What if my spouse and I agree on some things but not others?
  9. What happens in a custody dispute?
  10. Does it matter that I was never married to the other parent?

Do I really need a lawyer?
There are circumstances in which you may be able to represent yourself. If you have no minor children, few assets and no support issues, and you and your spouse get along well enough to agree on resolutions, you may not need a lawyer. Before reaching any agreements, you should consult with a lawyer to advise you of your rights, and you might want to have an attorney to help you through the process, but you should balance the benefits of having an experienced lawyer helping you through the process against the costs.
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In California family law matters, between 80-90% of cases are handled with at least one party representing themselves. See, California State Bar Journal article, Responding to the Pro Per Crisis By Anthony P. Capozzi, President, State Bar of California.

If your separation has been fairly amicable and you have reason to believe that you and your spouse will be able to resolve your differences without much difficulty, you may be able to represent yourselves. Also, if you have few resources and the cost of litigation will be greater than the value of your assets, you may find representing yourself more cost-effective. However, if your spouse has retained counsel or if there are significant differences between you and your spouse, you should at least consult with an attorney to review your options. If you do have children, assets or support issues, or if your opposing party has a lawyer, you definitely should consider retaining experienced counsel who can properly advise you.
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What should I expect if I represent myself?
If you represent yourself, you will be held to the same standard as a lawyer. This means you will have to be prepared to file the correct documents with the court without missing important deadlines, and either appear in court and make your case to the judge or negotiate your settlement.

a. Resources: There are a great many books available to help you with completing forms and filing documents. I have found that the reference materials published by Nolo Press are consistently accurate, well-written and best of all, the authors know when to stop giving direction and suggest that you seek legal assistance. I recommend their manuals without hesitation. (Remember, if you are going to represent yourself, you will be held to the same standard as a trained and experienced attorney, so it is very important that you educate yourself as thoroughly as possible.)

b. Getting assistance from the Self-Help Center:
The self-help center will help you prepare forms and may give you general instructions on what to expect, but they cannot represent you in court and they cannot give you legal advice. Every county family law court in California has a self-help center which provides services regardless of income.

What is “Unbundling”(or Limited Scope Representation)?
You can hire an attorney to handle one aspect of your case while you represent yourself in other aspects. For example, some litigants hire counsel for child custody and visitation issues only while representing themselves in support and property division issues. Some lawyers do not take cases on a limited scope basis, so if you have decided to seek limited scope representation, be sure to check before you schedule your consultation.
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Can I get help from a paralegal?
If you and your spouse see eye-to-eye on your legal issues but you’d rather have someone else take care of drafting the pleadings, you can have a paralegal prepare your documents jointly. There are some dangers in the option:

a. Quality of service: California is one of the few states which regulates paralegals (See Business and Professions Code § 6540 et seq.). However, some paralegals have more experienced and knowledge than others. If a paralegal’s work is done incorrectly or incompletely, you may end up paying an attorney to correct the mistakes. Before agreeing to a paralegal, do your homework. References from friends and family will go far.

b. “Showing your hand”: If you go into the paralegal in good faith and the other party does not, you could end up giving away your negotiating strategy, and after having paid the paralegal’s fees, you may need to spend even more money for an attorney to litigate the matter.

Is mediation a good idea?
If you and your spouse are close to an agreement but need some help, you can meet with a mediator for help in making your decisions. Anyone can provide this service, from family friends or relatives or clergy to attorneys who have had training and experience in the mediation field. (This type of service is not to be confused with the mediation required during child custody/visitation disputes.) The advantages to this process are that you decide on a settlement that works for both spouses instead of having to accept terms imposed on you by a judge. Also, in mediation you may include factors that the judge may not be able to consider due to rules of law. The disadvantages to mediation are the same as provided above for paralegal assistance, and you should always consult with a lawyer before making a final decision. You may be giving up rights or advantages without knowing it.
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What is Collaborative Law?
In a true collaborative case, there are no court appearances. Both parties are represented by counsel and though cooperation, they conduct a series of 4-way meetings to discuss the issues and set up an informal discovery schedule. Other professionals such as accountants, child custody mediators or appraisers may be retained jointly and in general, their reports are accepted by both parties. At the beginning of the case, both parties sign an agreement that neither party will request a court hearing, and if either one does so, both attorneys must withdraw and new counsel shall be retained. The disadvantage here is obvious. If the other party acts in bad faith and ultimately files a motion in court, the process stops. Both attorneys have to withdraw, everything starts over and the money you have paid to your collaborative attorney is lost. More Information...
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What am I facing in my divorce?
Depending on the factors of your case, you will have five basic issues to resolve in a divorce proceeding:

a. Child Custody and Visitation
b. Child Support
c. Spousal Support
d. Property Division
e. Status (being legally restored to the status of single persons)

Of course, your case may differ. If you and your spouse have no children, issues of custody, visitation and support will not be relevant. You may also face issues of domestic violence or requests for attorney’s fees.
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What if my spouse and I agree on some things but not others?
In any part of your divorce action, you have essentially three choices.

(1) Stipulated agreement: If you and your spouse reach an agreement, the terms that you decide will be accepted by the court in most cases.

(2) Default: If one party shows up to court and the other party does not, the court may enter a default judgment against the party who does not appear. While this may sound appealing, default judgments are not secure and are routinely set aside. If that happens, you have to start all over again.

(3) Order: If there is no agreement, the issues are litigated and the Judge decides what will happen. (This is what we see most often in television and movies, since there isn’t much drama in compromised agreements.) While many litigants are driven by a desire to “have their day in court,” this impulse is not necessarily a good idea in family law matters. There are plenty of resources available to proclaim your views, and it is ultimately a much better idea to do this when your children, your resources and your assets are not at risk.

With the exception of visitation and custody issues, the process is generally a period during which relevant information is exchanged, followed by negotiation towards a mutually acceptable settlement, and if no settlement is possible, an appearance at court for an order on the matter.
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What happens in a custody dispute?
For child custody and visitation issues, the first step is mediation. This makes a great deal of sense, because Judges know law and courtroom procedure, but few of them know what children need. Also, the issues facing children during a divorce should be addressed privately with the parents as much as possible. During mediation, you will be referred to a qualified expert (usually someone holding an MFT, MSW or other appropriate degree) who will review the situation and submit a recommendation to the Judge. (The process varies slightly in different counties, so you should check to make sure you are familiar with your local court’s process.)

In general, your judge will want to adopt most or all of the mediator’s recommendations. This means that the most important part of your custody/visitation dispute will occur in the mediator’s office, not necessarily in the courtroom. If you think the mediator’s recommendations are mistakes, you can ask the judge to submit the matter to trial, which means that you (or your attorney) will have to cross-examine the mediator in an effort to discredit the report. Obviously, it would be better to get the mediation report right the first time. If you decide to hire an attorney, make sure that you have hired counsel who will properly prepare you for mediation. In most counties, your attorney will not be allowed to participate with you, so it is crucial that you are prepared for that session.

You have two choices in mediation: the service provided by your local county or private mediators. Most courts offer mediation through a Family Court Services Office, usually situated in or near the courthouse, but other counties do not have the resources to subsidize this office and their mediation matters are referred to the private sector. All counties in California are required to provide mediation services.

County Service (Family Court Services): The benefit of this service is the low cost. Typically, the fees incurred during this service are nominal, and the first two hours are free. The detriment to this service is that you will have a relatively short amount of time to go over these very important issues. Children under the age of five will not be interviewed. Additional information about Family Court Services in Sacramento can be found here.

Private Mediators: During private mediation, the mediator will meet with the parents first and then schedule a series of meetings. Private mediators may interview collateral sources such as teachers, pediatricians, counselors, significant others, day care providers, etc., and so their review is more comprehensive than the county service is able to provide. Private mediators may also elect to observe children with their parents, regardless of the children’s ages.

The detriment is, of course, the cost. Private mediator’s fees vary based on experience, availability and other factors. The spouse who is requesting private mediation will usually be ordered to advance the costs of mediation subject to later allocation. This means that if you want a private mediator, you will have to pay the retainer and ask for reimbursement from your spouse at a later date (usually after mediation has concluded). In Sacramento, the list of private mediators can be found here, and if you wish to file a request for private mediation, instructions on the process can be found here.
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Does it matter that I was never married to the other parent?
You will file a parentage act (UPA) to determine child custody, visitation and support. Property issues will not be addressed in your dispute, but you may have property or support rights under other areas of law. Again, you should consult with an attorney who is qualified to advise you appropriately before you make any agreements.
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Katherine Sabo, Attorney at Law
2386 Fair Oaks Blvd., Ste. 210, 95825
Phone -- (916) 447-1092 Fax -- (916) 447-1093

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