Making the decision to get divorced is possibly one of the biggest emotional steps in life. A good divorce lawyer in California will, however, guide you through what could be a tumultuous time marked by uncertainty and reassure you that everything will be done to protect your interests on your behalf. If you are looking for a divorce lawyer, you should do your research to make sure that you find someone qualified to advocate for you and to determine the extent of their assistance throughout the process.

Questions to ask about the divorce lawyer’s experience

What is your experience in divorce law? 

Ask the lawyer about the number of cases he/she has handled, to determine how flexible they’ve had to be in their approach to representing clients in different divorce scenarios. It is important to also ask how many years of experience he/she has, as they will have acquired greater problem-solving skills. You should ask how many of these cases have been settled out of court, as it will indicate whether your lawyer has been able to negotiate on their clients’ behalf without the time-consuming and expensive exercise of having to go to court. If you need assistance with Child Support and/or Spousal Support negotiations, ensure that your attorney is a Certified Family Law Specialist who will see to it that you and your children receive the financial support to maintain the standard of living you have been accustomed to during your marriage. If you require large financial settlements, California is a community property state where all assets and property acquired during the marriage has to be evenly split – you will want an attorney with extensive legal knowledge and experience to help divide marital assets and debt without unnecessary complications. Determine whether the lawyer has proven experience in obtaining accurate business valuations, should a business or professional practice be subject to property division when the marriage ends. You should ask about their workload, as you would want a dedicated attorney who has sufficient time to offer your case personal attention and dedication.

Can I get references from previous clients? 

Any law firm with a proven reputation should have testimonials available on their website or Google Reviews from previous clients as a reference. Also, look for certification marks on their practice website that will show that the legal practice has been subject to ratings by licensed facilitators.

How your divorce case will be handled 

What will the divorce process be like? 

California’s divorce process involves the following steps:

  • Filing and serving a divorce petition
  • Requesting temporary court orders
  • Exchanging information and documents relevant to the divorce
  • Going to trial if both parties cannot come to an agreement outside of court

Would you recommend mediation or trial? 

If you and your spouse are on reasonably good terms, we would recommend mediation. If you are committed to working together to reach the best agreement, without contentious matters, a mediator will act as a neutral third-party to assist you in keeping matters amicable. Should this not be the case, you might have to go to a family court.

Should I file for a divorce? 

California was the first state to implement the concept of a “no-fault” divorce, which means that you are able to file for divorce citing irreconcilable differences. If you do file first, you could request temporary child and spousal support and ask to live in the family home if it is warranted. 

Who will handle my case and/or go to court? 

Your divorce lawyer will handle your case from the get-go and be there for you every step of the way to answer all your questions or to address any concerns you might have.  

Where to from here? 

If you’ve decided that you are intent on filing for divorce, or if you have been served, filling out the paperwork is a very important step in the process. It is in your best interest to have an experienced attorney to guide you through this process and to help you complete all the forms needed to finalize your divorce. These would include:

  • Declaration of Disclosure (FL-140)
  • Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141)
  • Schedule of Assets and Debts (FL-142)
  • Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150)
  • Property Declaration (FL-160)

Questions to ask about attorney billing and fee requests

How will you charge me? 

Ask whether the attorney would be willing to draw up a payment plan in advance, which will not only make it easier for the client to know what to expect but will also make it easier for a client to stay up to date with the payment of the bills. Most divorce lawyers will work on an hourly rate and compile your bill for every hour they have worked on your case. Others might prefer payment up-front in the form of a retainer. 

What is your hourly rate and the hourly rate of paralegals/secretaries that will work on my case? 

The national average of hourly rates for attorneys typically ranges from $100 to $400 per hour depending on their experience and area of expertise. The hourly rate of paralegals/secretaries who will work on your case will be at a much lower hourly rate. 

Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate? 

Yes, there will be varying rates for other lawyers, paralegals, and/or secretaries. Law firms will usually be able to give an estimated hourly rate for individuals who might need to assist with your case but it will be difficult to predict exact costs.

What is your retainer and how will it be used? 

You could expect to pay a retainer fee of anywhere in the range of $2,000 to $100,000, depending on the complexity of your case and the lawyer you select. This usually serves as a form of guarantee to reserve a specific attorney (especially if you require the help of an attorney who is in high demand on short notice) and will help pay towards your final bill. 

How often do you bill?  

This will be dependent on the payment structure agreed with your attorney. The typical options are:

  • Hourly fee
  • Flat fee
  • Retainer fee
  • Contingency fee

What can I do to manage the costs in the divorce proceedings? 

If your case develops to such an extent that it becomes lengthier, costs will increase. If you can keep disagreements between parties to a minimum, your costs will be significantly lower than in a contested divorce. Firms could offer flexible payment options that could include credit card payment or for costs to be collected from the sale of a property or other assets. 

Can I get my spouse to pay my legal fees? 

California policy dictates that if one spouse has the financial means to pay for lawyers representing both parties in the event that one party does not have the finances to have a lawyer represent them, then an order could be made and considered to be necessary and fair to have the one spouse pay for all legal fees. 

Will my spouse expect me to pay his/her legal fees? 

This depends on whether or not your spouse can afford to pay for his/her own legal fees. If they don’t have the means, but you do, then the likelihood could exist that a court order could be issued to have you pay for your spouse’s legal fees. If your spouse is, however, earning an income of their own, the odds are that they will have to pay their own legal fees.

What can I do if my spouse intentionally increases the cost of the divorce? 

If your spouse engages in disruptive tactics, a judge could penalize their conduct and grant a request to pay for either part of or all of your attorney’s fees.

Questions to ask a divorce lawyer about your divorce process 

Living arrangements  

If you have children, our advice would be to stay in the marital home so as not to affect child custody arrangements. It’s often also a more economic option for couples going through a divorce as the expenses only pertain to one household and not two. If you do, however, want to force your spouse to leave the house you will have to get a court order based on evidence provided or reason to believe that your spouse could potentially harm you physically or emotionally.

Temporary orders 

Either spouse is allowed to request temporary orders during the divorce process. Typical orders include: 

  • Custody and/or visitation of children
  • Child support
  • Spousal/partner support
  • Other requests could also involve the use of an asset

The process to follow would be to fill out the relevant court forms which apply to the type of order you would want to request. Have your completed forms reviewed by a legal professional, then make two copies of the forms (the original will be submitted to the court and the copies will be for you and your spouse). Submit your forms to the court clerk and have them stamp your two copies, and pay a filing fee. The clerk will provide you with a court date. Get someone to serve the papers on your spouse at least 16 days prior to the court date. The person who served the papers will have to fill out a “proof of service” form and return it to you for you to file it with the court. Attend your court hearing on the date provided by the court clerk. 

Child custody 

California courts could award one of two types of custody: 

  • Legal Custody

Parents can either share joint legal custody or one parent can be awarded sole custody. This type of custody refers to a parent’s right to contribute to a child’s well-being, medical care, education and religious upbringing. 

  • Physical Custody

This form of custody refers to where a child will live and with which parent they will live. This is usually dependent on several factors, such as the parents’ finances, work schedules, history of domestic violence and living arrangements. The noncustodial parent will typically have visitation rights with the child.  

In terms of which parenting plan might work best in your case, the judge will make a decision based on the child’s best interests upon review of all evidence submitted in your case. 

Spousal support 

The general consensus when determining spousal support is that one spouse will receive payment from the other to maintain the same standard of living they were accustomed to during the marriage, but that divorce should not impoverish one of the parties. Under California Family Code 4320, the court will take a number of factors into consideration to determine who will have to pay spousal support, such as the duration of the marriage, financial debt, and the age and health of each party. Spousal support can be modified during and after the divorce due to major changes occurring, and the law has provisions allowing petitions to modify your divorce agreement.

Child support 

California Family Code 4053 states that both parents are mutually responsible for supporting their children and that each parent should pay for the support of their children according to their ability. Child support can be modified during and after the divorce by petitioning the court that granted the order. This can only be done if you can prove that circumstances have changed to warrant the change in the child support agreement.

Visitation rights 

 California courts always try to maintain the family unit to allow the child to remain in contact with both their father and mother if it is in the child’s best interest. Judges will take the child’s wishes into consideration, as well as both parent’s ability to provide a nurturing environment. Grandparents may request the court for reasonable visitation with their grandchild, in which case the court will have to determine whether it is in the best interest of the child to allow such visitation rights. 

Community vs Separate Property 

California law dictates that all assets and property acquired by spouses during their marriage is subject to division under community property. Separate property would be considered to be any property, heirlooms or gifts acquired before or after the marriage came to a legal end. 

Contested versus uncontested divorce issues 

Contested divorces in California could have contentious issues on which spouses cannot agree pertaining to child custody and visitation, child support, property division, and spousal support. An uncontested divorce is usually a much quicker process, less expensive, and less stressful. You will however still need a lawyer to give you the best possible advice in drawing up a divorce agreement and settlement. 

Questions to ask a divorce lawyer about the outcome of my case 

Based on what you know about my case, what do you think the best possible outcome could be? 

This will be dependent on whether your divorce seems likely to be contested or uncontested. Every case is unique and needs its own approach, but we will discuss all facts with you and provide you with reasonable expectations. We are committed to advocating fearlessly for your children, your assets and your future.  

If you need to speak to a divorce lawyer in California, schedule a free consultation with our Certified Family Law Specialist, Andrew L. Westover, who will guide you through the process.