California Court Upholds Stipulated Divorce Judgment and Sanctions

Broken HeartUnder California law, courts are authorized to “bifurcate” or divide a divorce case into two parts. The first phase would address the status of the marriage (i.e., granting a judgment of divorce as to status only), and the second would tackle and resolve the remaining issues. Often, the outstanding matters are stickier and more complex, giving rise to disagreements between the spouses, thereby extending the process. But there are many ways to reduce the length and expense of a divorce case. An efficient and amicable divorce is in the best interests of all the parties involved. Separating spouses will save time, money, and emotional heartache if they are able to work out some of the more difficult issues to be resolved. One of the best ways to approach the legal intricacies of divorce is to consult with an experienced family law attorney who will work to protect your interests while moving the case along as swiftly as possible.

Parties who wish to proactively resolve issues surrounding their divorce may consider preparing a stipulated judgment. The stipulation (or agreement) may address the “status only” of the parties’ marriage, or it may also include matters of property division, child support and custody, and spousal support, among other things. In a recent California case, the couple signed a stipulated judgment dissolving their marriage. While the stipulation addressed the status only, it also contained language indicating that the couple planned to prepare another stipulation covering a myriad of other unresolved issues in their divorce.

Fourteen months after the court entered the stipulated judgment with a stamped signature of the judge, the wife passed away without a will. Two years later, the husband sought to set aside the stipulated judgment dissolving the marriage, arguing that the judgment was void. According to the husband, the judgment failed to comply with California Family Code Section 2337, requiring pension plans to be joined as a party to a dissolution action. He also claimed that the stipulated judgment was not reviewed, approved, or signed by a Judicial Officer in accordance with local law.

The trial court denied the husband’s request, pointing out that he failed to show how the judgment was “void on its face.” Furthermore, the court found that the husband did not cite any legal authority to support his claim that the stamped signature on the judgment was insufficient authentication. The court also concluded that he did not make a distinction between void and voidable judgments, an important factor in this case. The court was “troubled” by the husband’s request, more than four years after the stipulated judgment was entered, and it issued sanctions for the husband to pay out of his separate property. The husband appealed, reiterating his argument that the judgment was void and challenging the court’s order of sanctions.

The court of appeals affirmed the decision, noting:  1) the cases on which the husband relied were not applicable to the facts here, 2) there was no legal authority disapproving of rubber-stamped signatures on legal documents, 3) the husband could not argue that a stipulated judgment was “void” (he could have claimed that it was “voidable” – but even then, the court concluded that the four-year delay would have worked against that argument), and 4) the failure to comply with Section 2337 did not render the judgment void but instead voidable.

As this case clearly shows, it is extremely important, even when agreeing to and signing a stipulated judgment in divorce, for the parties to be thoroughly aware of the legal and practical implications. 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 in 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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