California Court Upholds Default Judgment in Divorce Action

mortgage-and-money-6-1237957.jpgWhen one spouse files a petition for divorce (or dissolution of marriage), the other spouse may respond in various ways. He or she may do nothing, which results in a true default, effectively accepting the terms of the petition. He or she may do nothing, but with a signed and notarized agreement spelling out the terms of the divorce. Or he or she may file a response, either accepting or contesting the other spouse’s terms. It is important to understand the ramifications of choosing one of these courses of action over another. Your decision will likely affect your legal and financial rights going forward. To protect yourself and your family, you are encouraged to speak with an experienced San Diego divorce attorney as soon as possible.

Be assured that many laws governing marital dissolution proceedings were enacted with the intention of ensuring that divorcing spouses are treated fairly throughout the process. One example of this is the requirement that parties are given proper notice of the divorce petition and the request for relief, as well as an opportunity to assert a response (with the opportunity to defend). Section 580 of the California Code fulfills these due process requirements in “default” cases. Proper notice and the opportunity to respond are extremely important in “default” cases, in which the person served with the petition fails to assert a response. The assumption (and purpose of the law) is that the person failed to respond with full awareness of the relief sought.

In a recent California divorce case, the court was presented with a related issue of first impression: whether a default judgment is void for lack of notice when the marital dissolution petition asks the court to determine the property rights of the parties without listing the property. Here, the parties were married in 1989 and separated in 2009 when the wife filed a petition for divorce.

The divorce petition requested the court to allocate the property rights between the parties, but it did not list any property. Specifically, the document indicated that the parties would stipulate to the division of assets and debts, and if this did not happen, the petitioner would amend the petition. Before either of these events occurred, the court struck the husband’s answer, conducted a “prove-up” hearing, and entered a default judgment disposing of the marital property.

Before the court struck the husband’s answer, however, both parties had served each other with declarations itemizing all known assets and debts subject to disposition. The wife “checked” certain boxes on the documents identifying certain “separate property,” as well as another box identifying community and quasi-community assets. The husband filed a response listing certain items as separate, community, or quasi-community, respectively. They both filed income and expense declarations.

The husband appealed the default judgment, arguing that it is void because it exceeded the relief requested by his wife. He also argued that the court erred in striking his response to the dissolution petition that led to the default judgment. The court of appeals pointed out that typically, for purposes of notice, a default judgment cannot dispose of property that has not been identified in the divorce petition or via an attached declaration. But here, the court concluded otherwise, holding that the default judgment was valid and enforceable because the husband appeared in the proceedings by filing a response that identified the assets and debts subject to division. Furthermore, the court concluded that the husband received notice of the assets and debts to be divided by service of the wife’s two preliminary declarations.

Here, the court effectively concluded that the husband had sufficient notice of the items to be adjudicated by the default judgment. This decision nicely illustrates the complicated nature of divorce proceedings, and how each and every step of the process can affect one’s financial and legal rights after the divorce. Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parties involved in family law disputes for more than 20 years. Doppelt & Forney serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt & Forney through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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