Families Change Guide to Separation & Divorce

5.1 - Introduction

5.1 - Introduction

This is the fifth section of the course and the final topic.  You have looked at your financial picture and dealt with the issues of financial separation.  You have examined how to separate your finances and now it’s time to consider what to include in your agreement and how to formalize it.

There are several ways an agreement can be formalized. You may find ways to negotiate an agreement outside of court, for example, through mediation. In some cases, if there has been violence or a threat of violence from a family member, making a financial agreement may not be a safe option. If this is your situation, you should see a lawyer. Still, in other cases, decisions about finances will need to be made in court.

Whether made with or without going to court, you need to know what to include in the financial agreement. Let’s begin by looking at agreements for support.

Child Support Agreements

As you now know, parents can agree to a child support order based on the California child support guideline. By signing a written agreement (or stipulation) for the guideline amount, parents do not have to go in front of a judge to decide child support. But the agreement will still need to be submitted to the court clerk for the judge to sign so that it can be enforced as an order of the court.

For child support agreements, an additional step is needed if one parent is on public assistance, (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or CalWorks) or if the local child support agency is involved with collecting an existing support order. 

If this applies in your situation, you must submit your agreement to the local child support agency. The LCSA must also agree to your proposed child support amount AND sign the agreement between the parents. If the LCSA signs, then you can submit the agreement to the court clerk.

Non-guideline child support agreements                                          

You should also know that parents can agree on an amount of support that is higher or lower amount of child support guideline amount, as long as the judge approves that amount. Parents who agree to non-guideline support must truthfully state in the agreement that they:

  • Know the guideline child support amount;
  • Are not pressured or forced to agree to this child support amount;
  • Are not receiving public assistance;
  • Have not applied for public assistance;
  • Agree to an amount of support that will meet the needs of the children; and
  • Think that the child support amount is in the best interest of the children.

Other child-support related agreements
As part of the child support agreement, parents also have to agree on who will keep or pay for health insurance for the children and how they will each contribute to other expenses related to raising the children, like:

  • Child-care expenses;
  • Health-care costs not covered by insurance (co-pays, etc.);
  • Special education or other needs of the children (tutoring, after school activities, etc);
  • Travel expenses related to visitation (if any); and
  • Any other expense related to your children.

Child-related expenses are usually shared 50-50. When there is a big difference between the parents’ incomes, these expenses can be shared proportionately to each parent’s income, or in the way you both believe is appropriate in your situation.

Payment details

In the agreement, be sure to include how child support will be paid. For example, will it be paid directly between the two of you or by wage garnishment (an automatic deduction from the paying person’s paychecks), which is sent directly from the employer?  Also include when the child support payments will begin. Finally, specify the date by which each payment is due. This could be tied to number of times the person paying support receives his or her pay check, which  could be once a week, two times each month, or even once a month.

Writing up a child support agreement

For child support agreements, sometimes you must use an official Judicial Council form, like the Stipulation to Establish or Modify Child Support (Form FL-350). But in most cases, you can use a form that fits your situation or write your agreement on pleading paper. In addition, you are sometimes required to attach a copy of the guideline child support calculation.

If you have questions or want to have your agreement reviewed before submitting it to the court clerk, talk to a lawyer before you sign it. A lawyer or the family law facilitator in your county can also help both parents figure out the child support guideline amount, work out a child support agreement, and write up the agreement in the proper format. They can also help you prepare an earnings assignment order if that is the method of payment you agreed to.

Temporary and Permanent Spousal or partner support agreements

For temporary spousal or partner support, you can agree on an amount that was calculated using a specific computer program or formula, or any amount that you agree will meet the interim needs of one partner and, which the other partner is able to pay.

Courts in different counties may use slightly different factors in calculating temporary support. Your court’s local rules should explain how temporary support is calculated in your county. Check your court’s local rules for the temporary support guidelines, and consult with a lawyer or your court’s Family law Facilitator or Self-Help Center.

For permanent spousal or partner support, remember these orders are part of your judgment for divorce or legal separation.  Therefore, the agreement must be attached to a specific form(Judgment (form FL-180)).

It’s also important to remember that you are not allowed to use a computer program to figure out the amount of permanent spousal or partner support.  Instead, you both must consider the factors in California Family Code section 4320. You may wish to complete and attach Judicial Council form FL-157, Spousal or Partner Support Declaration Attachment (form FL-157) for this purpose.

Finally, your judgment for spousal or partner must specify:

  • Who will pay/who will receive spousal/partner support (unless you agreed that no one will pay to the other);
  • The duration of the support payments — how long the payments will last; and
  • How the payments will be made — directly between the 2 of you or by wage garnishment (an automatic deduction from the paying person’s paychecks).

Dividing community property in your agreement

As you have seen, the goal in dividing community property is to come up with an agreement that divides everything as equally as possible. This means that you each of you should end up with roughly the same value of your property (and debt) when all community property is divided.

Dividing your property does not necessarily mean a physical division.

For example, if you and your spouse or partner have two bank accounts, you do not have to split one account down the middle, split the money, and then do the same with the other account. Instead, you can see if the accounts have more or less the same amount of money. If they do, one of you can agree to take over one account and the other one takes the other account. If, in this same example, one account has a lot more money than the other, one of you can keep the bigger account, and the other can keep the smaller account but also get something else that, together with the money in the smaller account, adds up to roughly what is in the bigger account.

You can also use debt to balance out someone getting more of the property.

For example, if one spouse or domestic partner is taking something with a high value, like a house in which there is equity (value), it may be possible to equalize or balance out the division by giving that spouse or domestic partner the credit card debt.

Assets may also be sold. For example, you may agree to sell, or you may ask the court to order the sale of, the family home or other high value assets, so that the proceeds can be divided equally.

Special concerns in dividing debt

When you try to divide your debt, use caution.

Sometimes spouses or domestic partners try just taking the entire amount owed and dividing it in half — so, for example, one party takes half the credit cards and the other takes the other half. They may even put this in a written agreement. But the people you owe the money to do not have to honor your agreement with your spouse or domestic partner. They can go after the spouse or partner that signed the contract (like a credit card application), regardless of which of you agrees to be responsible for the debt.

To avoid these potential problems with dividing debt, consider:

  • Using the money from the sale of property to pay off all the credit cards.
  • Having the person who is to pay a joint credit card get a new credit card in only his or her name and transfer the balance from the joint card to the new one.

Finally, remember, until a judge signs off on your agreement and issues a final order, your community property and debts still belong to the two of you and do not become separate, even if you have agreed on how to divide them between yourselves.

Now that you know what to include in your agreements for support or for the division of property, talk to a lawyer who practices in your county or the Family Law Facilitator or Self-Help Center in your local court. They can show you which forms you should use to write-up your agreement.