When Fault May Still Matter in Your California Divorce Case

gavelCalifornia has operated under a “no-fault” standard for divorce cases since Governor Ronald Reagan signed the country’s first no-fault divorce law in 1970. Since that time, spouses may seek a dissolution of their marriage in California as long as they meet the jurisdictional requirements and allege that the marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown due to irreconcilable differences. As a recent Southern California case decided by the Second District Court of Appeal demonstrates, the standard for deciding spousal support is not the same. In litigating spousal support, the parties may offer evidence of fault, especially if the at-fault party is the spouse seeking support.

In this recent case, a Santa Barbara County trial court dissolved the 26-year marriage of Donn Schu and Genise Gomez in 2012. During the marriage, the wife had conducted a long-running sexual relationship with an underage friend of one of the couple’s children. The boy was 12 when the relationship with the wife began. The boy attempted to end the relationship many times, but the wife used threats to dissuade him. As part of her efforts to keep the affair a secret, the wife once cut a large chunk out of the couple’s daughter’s hair when the daughter refused to give her the password to the boy’s sister’s social media account. The wife also provided the couple’s son with so much alcohol that he sometimes drank until he vomited.

All of this evidence came to light as part of the couple’s divorce case. In that action, the wife had requested that the court order the husband to pay her spousal support. The court awarded her no support, concluding that the evidence showed that she could support herself. The wife appealed this ruling but lost. The crux of her argument on appeal was that California is a “no-fault” divorce state, and, for this reason, it was an improper and prejudicial mistake to allow the husband to introduce evidence of the wife’s fault during the arguments related to spousal support.

The appeals court rejected the wife’s argument, upholding what the trial judge ordered. While the wife was correct that Section 2335 of the Family Code says that in a case of “dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties, including depositions and discovery proceedings, evidence of specific acts of misconduct is improper and inadmissible,” that did not automatically mean that the husband’s proof of the wife’s misdeeds was inadmissible. Divorce is governed by a “no-fault” standard, but the standard for awarding spousal support is not identical. Section 4320 covers spousal support, and it says that a trial judge “may” order support. The use of the word “may” means that awarding support (or declining to award support) is within the judge’s discretion. In exercising that discretion, there are certain things that the law requires judges to consider. One of those mandatory items is “domestic violence … between the parties or perpetuated by either party against either party’s child.”

The wife’s actions related to the couple’s son and daughter were each qualifying instances of domestic violence. The wife’s “providing her son with alcohol to the extent he drank himself sick and forcibly cutting her daughter’s hair qualifies as ‘domestic violence’ by any reasonable definition of the term.” The wife argued unsuccessfully that the trial court in her case used too broad a definition of domestic violence and that, under the trial judge’s standard, having an affair or withholding sex could be considered domestic violence. The appeals court concluded that the wife’s hypothetical situations were not comparable to what she did. The wife repeatedly “physically and emotionally abused her children to facilitate molesting a child,” which was hardly analogous to refusing to help around the house or buying too many shoes.

When you are facing a divorce case, there may be many types of arguments that you can make and varieties of evidence that you can offer to the court when it comes to spousal support. Skilled California family law counsel can help you assess your case and develop a sensible path toward success. The diligent San Diego divorce attorneys at Doppelt & Forney have been assisting clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years as they litigate their spousal support and other family law issues. For a free consultation, reach out to Doppelt & Forney through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

More blog posts:

California Court Interprets Agreement’s ‘Cohabitation’ Language to Require ‘Committed Relationship’, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Sept. 27, 2016

Domestic Violence and Its Impact on a California Spousal Support Case, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Aug. 23, 2016