The California Family Code was enacted effective January 1, 1994 to consolidate in one place previously enacted laws dealing with marriage, divorce (more accurately, dissolution of marriage), spousal support (otherwise known as alimony), child custody, child visitation, child support, and community property. Most of these laws were previously in the Civil Code, and the Code of Civil Procedure. Others were in the Evidence Code, the Probate Code, and the Welfare and Institutions Code. Putting them all together in a new "Code" was a good thing.
Since 1999 the Family Code has also included laws dealing with domestic partnerships. There are now 21 Divisions in the Family Code, each divided into Parts. Most Parts are divided into Chapters. Some Chapters are divided further into Articles. The final division is into innumerable Sections. Standing alone the Family Code fills 681 double-columned pages. It's complicated.
A divorce case is a lawsuit. The case starts when one spouse, the "petitioner," files a "petition" against the other spouse, the "respondent," asking the court to dissolve their marriage. The petition is filed in the Superior Court where the petitioner has lived for at least six months. The case ends with a judgment that the parties are no longer husband and wife. The petitioner gets the judgment even if the respondent doesn't want it, because California is a "no fault" state. All the petitioner needs to do is say there are "irreconcilable differences" making it impossible for the marriage to continue.
Between the filing of the petition and the filing of the judgment there may be several hearings before the judge on various issues, like spousal support, child support, child custody, and visitation. The hearings conclude with temporary orders. The judgment replaces the temporary orders with a final order usually resolving all the issues in the case. Some judgments result from trials and are therefore imposed on the parties by judges. Most judgments result from settlements by the parties themselves without trials, although a judge must still sign off on the marital settlement agreement.
Superior Court judges are not supposed to make law. Instead they must abide by the Family Code and the decisions of the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on California Family Law - how the Family Code and previous judicial decisions in this area should be interpreted and applied.
Out of the small number of divorce judgments resulting from Superior Court trials, only a few are appealed. Some appeals result in decisions ending the case. Some appeals result in decisions sending the case back to the Superior Court for further consideration. Lawyers refer to Appellate Decisions as opinions. A century ago appellate opinions were much shorter than they are today, and there were fewer of them. Much the same can be said about the Family Code. Every year it changes and grows.
Keeping up with California Family Law is one of our most important obligations to our clients. The continuing education requirements of the State Bar for Divorce lawyers are stringent. We exceed them. We also take special care to be sure our legal conclusions are accurate. Sometimes this demands hours of researching and reviewing sections of the Family Code and the judicial opinions interpreting them. At the same time we understand that knowing the facts is just as important as knowing the law. We ask lots of questions of our clients and we listen very carefully to their answers.
Above all we are honest with our clients and care what happens to them. A divorce is one of the most traumatic experiences a person will ever face. Our intention is to produce the very best results for all of our clients all the time. We want you to emerge satisfied, emotionally intact, and ready to move on successfully with your new life.
San Diego Divorce Attorney Stanley D. Prowse is a California Certified Family Law Specialist. We welcome your legal inquiries.