March 2013 Archives

March 28, 2013

California Law Requires The Surrender of Firearms for Virtually All Domestic Violence Court Orders

997480_sign.jpgFortunately for San Diego residents, California has one of the strictest laws on gun rights with respect to orders of protection. This is welcoming news to people, mostly women, who have been the victims of domestic violence. According to a New York Times article, some states do not require gun owners to relinquish their firearms, despite the issuance of an order of protection. Advocates cite constitutionally protected rights to bear arms, even in the face of a domestic violence court order. If you are involved in a domestic violence situation, it is imperative that you contact a local, experienced family law attorney to help you protect your safety and your rights.

California domestic violence laws prohibit the use of physical force or threats to traumatize household members. The laws also take into account that victims of domestic violence can include anyone with whom the alleged perpetrator shares a relationship. This may include dates, fiancées, roommates, children, current and former spouses, and biological parents of a child. Statistics show that, more often than not, when a woman dies in a domestic violence encounter, it is by the use of a gun. Advocates for victim's rights argue that the need to protect a woman's life should trump the right to bear arms.

Pursuant to California law, judges are mandated to order the surrender of firearms in virtually every domestic violence order. There is evidence that laws of this kind are making an impact: according to a 2010 study, there has been a 19 percent reduction in intimate partner homicides. In California, anyone who is served with a temporary restraining order has just 24 hours to hand over any weapons to law enforcement or they may sell the items to a licensed gun dealer.

Although these efforts are commendable, enforcement still remains an issue. In response to these concerns, the state set up a pilot program in 2006 to increase enforcement in San Mateo and Butte Counties. In 2010, when the state experienced fiscal problems, the program's funding was taken away. But San Mateo pursued other means of financing because, as far as they were concerned, their program was saving lives.

According to the head of the major crimes unit in San Mateo County, they have not had a firearm-related domestic violence homicide in the past three years. Just last year alone, they received 324 firearms by virtue of surrender or seizure from 81 people out of more than 800 protective orders. Under the program, each day a detective reviews a handful of protective orders and will follow up on the ones that make some reference to guns by going out and serving restraining orders and attempting to collect the firearms at that moment.

Threats and the use of firearms are not the only forms of domestic violence. Other examples of the infliction of a "corporal injury" on another may be accomplished through striking or hitting, exerting force or violence, cruel or inhumane punishment, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, communicating criminal threats of harm, and neglect or endangerment of health or safety.

Anyone who is the victim of domestic violence should contact the appropriate authorities and seek the assistance of an experienced attorney to help you protect your safety and your rights.

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March 21, 2013

Appellate Court Voids Prenup on Basis of Fraud

332157_contract (1).jpgJust last month, an appeals court in New York sided with a wife who had been on the losing end of a prenuptial agreement -- and essentially threw it out. While the laws in New York do not govern marriages that take place San Diego, the unexpected decision is sending shockwaves through the Family Law community at large. Divorce attorneys throughout the country are talking about the decision, and many believe that a solidly drafted prenup will still hold up in court, despite the surprising decision. If you are contemplating marriage and believe a prenup is the right agreement for your situation, it is imperative, now more than ever, that you consult an experienced, local attorney to draft the agreement.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, four days before their wedding, Peter Petrakis asked his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Cioffi, to sign a prenuptial agreement. He gave her an ultimatum - if she didn't sign the document, he would call off the wedding that was already paid for by Elizabeth's father. She agreed to sign, but only after Peter promised to tear up the agreement once they had children. He also promised to put her name on the deed to the house. These last two provisions were not included in the prenup.

After having two sons and one daughter, Elizabeth claimed that Peter reneged on his end of the bargain. Under the prenup, Elizabeth is entitled to $25,000 a year. She argued in court that Peter fraudulently induced her to sign the agreement just days before their wedding. The court agreed, even though Peter's promise was not part of the prenup. It is reported that Peter will appeal the decision to the highest court in the state.

With the prenup decision under her belt, Elizabeth plans to initiate divorce proceedings and will seek half of her husband's assets, estimated at $20 million. Some divorce attorneys have speculated that this decision could be quoted in every case going forward. Others are not sure whether the ruling will establish precedent or if it will be considered a singular decision, applicable only to the facts in this case.

California law requires parties to wait seven days from the day they first see the prenup before signing the document. And as we discussed in an earlier blog post, two important rules governing prenups dictate that the agreement must be in writing and must be fair. "Fair" means that the parties are expected to disclose all relevant financial information, a party must not coerce the other party to sign, and both parties must fully understand what they are signing. As we have seen from the decision in New York, the court agreed that the prenup was not fairly executed, as Elizabeth relied on her husband's verbal promises to tear up the agreement after they had children.

In order to avoid, or at least minimize, unexpected arguments concerning the validity of a prenup, parties are strongly encouraged to contact a local, experienced family law attorney for guidance through this complicated process.

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March 14, 2013

Demi Moore is Seeking Spousal Support in Divorce From Ashton Kutcher

1229466_dollar_sign.jpg It is no secret that Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher separated more than a year ago. The news spread through the tabloids in no time. But it took until this past December for one of the parties to file for divorce. According to a Huffington Post article, Kutcher filed first and Moore just recently responded by filing her own papers. The intriguing, and perhaps surprising part of this story is that Demi Moore is seeking spousal support from Kutcher. When a couple decides to end their marriage, often one of the parties is entitled to spousal support. If you or someone you know is contemplating divorce, it is imperative that you seek the advice of an experienced San Diego family law attorney, as early in the proceedings as possible, to identify and help protect your rights.

The article reports that Moore, who is 50-years-old, is asking Kutcher for spousal support and, to pay her attorney's fees, despite that she is worth (financially) more than he is. Some news sources have speculated that Moore was hurt by an affair Kutcher was thought to be having with a 23-year-old woman right before their separation. Reports also suggest that Moore is upset about Kutcher's publicly known relationship with Mila Kunis, an actress who starred in "That 70's Show" years ago, along with Kutcher.

From a financial standpoint, the request for spousal support seems to be stemming from bad feelings rather than a need to get by. According to the article, when Moore divorced Bruce Willis, she received $90 million. Currently, she is reported to be worth $150 million, compared to Kutcher's reported worth of $140 million. The decision on the amount, if any, of spousal support Demi Moore is entitled to will be determined by the court.

Under California law, when parties are divorcing, the court may order one spouse to pay the other a specified amount of money for support each month. A judge will look at what each spouse is able to earn to keep their standard of living as close to what they had during the marriage. In order to do this, the court will consider a variety of factors: (1) any marketable skills of the spouse receiving the support; (2) the current job market for those skills; (3) the expense and time it will take for the spouse who receives the support to obtain the training or education to get a job or to develop marketable skills or; (4) the extent that the earning capacity of the spouse who receives the support was adversely affected by unemployment during the marriage due to domestic responsibilities.

When one considers the above factors, it will be interesting to see what a court will order in terms of spousal support for Demi Moore. She seems to have earning potential and to be worth a great deal of money. For divorcing spouses who are not famous actors, the situation can be quite different. In order to ensure that you are treated fairly when it comes to spousal support, it is important to have an attorney who you can trust to protect your rights.

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March 7, 2013

California Appellate Court Ruled Waiver of Spousal Support in Prenuptial Agreement Violated Public Policy at Time of Execution

1221952_to_sign_a_contract_3.jpg Raymond and Roberta Melissa were married on August 8, 1985. He was 41 and she was 32. He owned a Newport Beach home, a jaguar and had a net worth of over $2 million. She rented an apartment and worked as a nurse. As a condition to getting married, Raymond required Roberta to sign a prenuptial agreement that was drafted by a neighbor's attorney-son, Craig Wilford. Roberta did not hire her own attorney to review the document, even though Wilford told her she could. The parties signed the agreement in 1985.

The issue contested in this case pertains a clause that relieves both parties of the responsibility to provide spousal support in the event of a divorce or legal separation. This part of the prenuptial agreement specifically and explicitly recognized that California law (at the time of the document's execution) prohibited the future waiver of spousal support. The agreement even cited the case, In re Marriage of Higgason, as standing for that current state of the law. However, the agreement further provided that the law regarding waiver of spousal support was in "a state of flux" and because of that, they agreed to mutually waive such rights.

The parties subsequently had a son who has autism and suffers from Fragile-X syndrome. Back in 1997, Roberta stopped working full-time. In the fall of 2009, the parties separated and then Roberta filed a petition for divorce shortly thereafter. Roberta continued to care for their son who is now 24-years-old, and works as a part-time janitor, earning $9 per hour. Roberta is unemployed.

The issue before the trial court was whether the prenuptial agreement was valid. The court's main two concerns were (1) whether it was required to apply the law in effect in 1985 when the agreement was executed; and (2) if so, whether the waiver of spousal support clause was void as against public policy. The court reviewed the Higgason case, relevant statutes and the later decision in In re Marriage of Pendleton & Fireman, and ultimately decided that it was required to apply the law at the time of execution. In so doing, the court held that it was "very clear" that spousal support waivers were void as against public policy in 1985. The court noted that relevant statutory amendments, as well as the decision in the Pendleton case, failed to overrule the Higgason case. The court entered a partial judgment holding the spousal support waiver invalid. Raymond appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed the decision. After reviewing the evolution of spousal support waivers, and the reasons for holding such provisions as against public policy (namely the preservation of marriage and its connection to society's welfare), the court pointed out that things have changed over time. In Higgason, the court held the waiver of support to be against public policy because it sought to change the wife's statutory obligation to support her husband. A later case, In re Marriage of Dawley, added to this notion by holding that public policy renders an agreement unenforceable when it promotes or encourages dissolution of the marriage.

The status of the law in 1985 was that any written waiver of the statutory duty to mutually support each other was void as against public policy. The court of appeals refused to accept the language in the parties' agreement as circumventing the law in 1985. Despite the enactment of the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act in 1986 (which failed to specifically address waivers of spousal support at the time), and the later decision in Pendleton that acknowledged the shift in public policy regarding such waivers, the court concluded that it was required to apply the law as it existed in 1985.

As a side note, in response to the decision in Pendleton, in 2002, the Legislature amended the statute requiring spouses to be represented by counsel before waiving spousal support in a prenuptial agreement, among other things.

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