California Court Retained Jurisdiction to Award Long-Term Spousal Support

Each divorce case presents a unique set of facts and important circumstances that can dramatically affect the course of the proceedings. Equally relevant is the California Family Code and how it will apply to these individual cases. When a couple decides to divorce, it is best to be as informed as possible before initiating the proceeding, which includes understanding how the local laws will affect your family. The Code addresses issues such as spousal support, the division of marital property, and child custody. An experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area would be able to navigate the legal framework with a precise focus on the facts of your particular case.

A recent case illustrates the extent to which family law cases vary. Three days after the husband filed for legal separation, the wife began serving a six-year prison term. Here, the couple had been married for over 23 years and had three adult children. In 2010, the wife was sentenced to prison after being convicted of unlawful sexual behavior with a minor. The court ordered the husband to pay the wife $500 per month of temporary spousal support, until remarriage, death, or further court order. The husband amended his filing to request dissolution of marriage.

In July 2012, the wife was permitted to leave prison to attend a settlement conference. The couple reached an agreement (with counsel present), dividing their assets and providing that long-term spousal support would be addressed “when the wife is released from prison.” The court stated that the issue of spousal support would be reserved. The husband’s attorney prepared the stipulated judgment, which provided that the court would reserve jurisdiction to award long-term spousal support until the wife’s release from prison, as well as other eventualities.

Five weeks before she was to be released from prison, the wife filed a request for long-term spousal support. The hearing, which was set for three days after her release, was continued twice. Three months after the wife’s release, the husband argued, among other things, that the court no longer had jurisdiction to conduct the hearing. The wife argued that the insertion of the word “until” into the stipulation for judgment was a mistake or “trickery.” Her counsel argued that the wife relied on the terms that the parties agreed to at the settlement conference, and that the issue of support was to be reserved. The trial court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter, based on the terms of the judgment. The wife appealed.

The court of appeals reviewed the marital settlement agreement and looked to the mutual intent of the parties. The court further reviewed California Code ยง 4336, which authorizes a court to retain spousal support jurisdiction after a lengthy marriage, unless an agreement or order specifically provides otherwise. Here, the stipulated judgment did not “specifically provide otherwise.” The court concluded that a reasonable interpretation of the language, as evinced by the circumstances and the parties’ conduct, is that the hearing was to be held within a reasonable time after the wife’s release.

The court concluded that the lower court retained jurisdiction to award spousal support. Here, the record of the settlement conference supported the wife’s position that the issue of long-term support would be addressed when she was released from prison. The husband failed to provide evidence to the contrary. Of great significance is the court’s statement that “[f]amily law court is a court of equity,” and to narrowly construe the term “until” under these circumstances would be inequitable.

Family law cases can be complicated and require strict attention to every detail. An experienced family law attorney can carefully review the facts in order to present the most effective strategy in your divorce case. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parties with divorce matters in Southern California. Doppelt and Forney, APLC serves clients in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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