California Family Law Attorney
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January 17, 2010
  Why is the date of PHYSICAL SEPARATION legally important?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. Why is the idea of 'physical separation' important in California divorce or domestic partnership dissolutions?

A. The idea of "physical separation" is one of the most important concepts to California matrimonial law. It determines presumptions based upon time of acquisition as to what is, or is not, community property. It is used to determine the length of marriage for purposes of deciding how long someone must pay, or can receive, spousal support. We've written a ton of stuff about this issue, and the laws have changed, changed again, and changed once more! See 2017's Family Code section 70.

Physical separation is the date that the marriage ends, for most practical purposes. The date of physical separation is the date that community property ceases to accumulate. Family Code section 771 states "The earnings and accumulations of a spouse and the minor children living with, or in the custody of, the spouse, while living separate and apart from the other spouse, are the separate property of the spouse."

Once spouses separate, all their earnings and everything that is acquired with those earnings are separate property of each spouse, respectively.

Similarly, upon separation each spouse is no longer liable for the debts of the other spouse. The community estate is liable for a debt incurred by either spouse "during marriage". During marriage "does not include the period during which the spouses are living separate and apart before a judgment of dissolution ... or legal separation...." FC section 910. An exception exists as to "necessaries" except to the extent that the parties are living separate by agreement and whether or not support is stipulated by that agreement. FC section 4302.

Separation is of critical importance to the expanding interpretation and growing field of the law of fiduciary duties. The duty of confidentiality that arises because of the marital relationship by legislative fiat (Family Code section 721) and which gives rise to major exposure for the conduct of spouses with regard to property and money, ceases at separation - meaning spouses no longer have the expectation and right of relying upon one another as trusted partners. Fiduciary duties continue pursuant to FC sections 1100 et seq. and sections 2100 et seq. as to assets that already exist, or can be considered marital opportunities arising after separation, until the time each asset in question is divided by agreement or court adjudication. Fiduciary duties are land mines. A good example of the consequences for breach of fiduciary duty is the Rossi case, where a wife who won the lottery and then filed for divorce the next day claiming she and her husband had already separated. She fails to list the lottery winnings in her paperwork, and refused to disclose it to the husband later claiming, among other things, that she had been a victim of domestic violence. Because the husband had no idea about the lottery winnings, he did not dispute the divorce or wife's asserted date of separation until much later when one day he received a letter intended for the wife by a company offering to buy out the winnings. He called the State Lottery Board, and then filed a motion to set aside the divorce degree and for damages for wife's fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. The court ordered the wife to disgorge all her winnings (100%) and pay them over to the husband.

The separation date is crucial to understanding reimbursement claims relating to payment on joint and separate debts, or in fixing rights to real property. For instance, California law provides that the community has an interest in the appreciation of a residence which is owned, meaning title is held, in one spouse's name alone where principal on a mortgage is being paid down. This is called the Moore-Marsden approach to equitable reimbursement. If the house appreciates after separation, the titled spouse may want to argue that all that appreciation belongs to them. Date of separation becomes important to the date of valuing the real estate and determining the relative principal loan amounts.

It is crucial where businesses are involved, regardless whether they are corporations, mom and pop shops, or sole proprietorships. For instance, what happens when a spouse who controls or who is the business, which was established before or during the marriage, continues to derive income from it after the parties separate? Maybe the business goes up in value. Perhaps it goes down in value through market factors, or maybe even the spouse intentionally drives it into the ground in order to reduce the amount that will be ordered to buy out the other spouse's interest. In all these situations a date of separation determination is crucial.

Another common area where it comes up in with regard to pensions, whether they be defined benefit plans or contributive benefit plans. Whatever accrues to the spouse who holds the pension by way of his post-separation contributions belongs to them.

Date of separation is also critical to determining the length of the marriage for purposes of spousal support or alimony rights. It is a snapshot in time with huge ramifications, including how long a spousal support obligation may continue and when it might be terminated.

It is critical that you hire an attorney who understands how to litigate and present the facts of physical separation. For a January, 2014 update and review of current date of separation appellate decisions, click here!

Author: Thurman W. Arnold III, Certified Family Law Specialist

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January 17, 2010
  What are interspousal FIDUCIARY DUTIES?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. I keep hearing the phrase "interspousal fiduciary duties". What does it mean?

A. Few areas of California divorce and family law is changing as rapidly, or is having as great an impact upon property division and support obligations, as is interspousal fiduciary duties.

Until the mid-1970s lesser "good faith" standards were imposed upon married persons which had consequences to usually only in extreme situations of self-dealing by one spouse or domestic partner. These standards have since morphed into much higher level "confidential duty" and "fiduciary duty" standards.

On January 1, 1994 Family Code section 721 became operative. That was revolutionary, but widely not understand, for the next 10 years. Section 721 has since been revised, extended, and expanded by statutory amendments and judicial decisions, and this continues.

The penalties for violating a fiduciary duty can be severe. Many attorneys, and some judges, are behind the curve in understanding the nuances of the obligations imposed by FC section 721 and related statutes. This ignorance places clients at financial risk in the course of dissolution or legal separation litigation. Indeed, it opens the door to the litigation continuing or re-emerging long after Judgment if breaches of fiduciary duty are discovered or alleged downstream. Having a lawyer who understands this developing area of the law will make or break some litigants, today and for years to come.

The accountability that the law of fiduciary duties add to the dissolution mix is a useful tool for combating marriage fraud by the other spouse. If society favors the party with more money or power over the weaker party, it will become increasingly unglued.

Fiduciary Duties Explained

In financial and property transactions with third parties and each other, spouses owe one another important statutory duties that create huge responsibilities and pitfalls. As between themselves, a husband and wife are subject to the general rules governing fiduciary relationships which control the actions of persons occupying confidential relations with each other. "This confidential relationship imposes a duty of the highest good faith and fair dealing on each spouse, and neither shall take any unfair advantage of the other." Family Code section 721(b).

The essence of the "fiduciary relationship" is that the parties are treated under the law as though they do not deal with each other on equal terms because one person (typically the managing spouse) in whom trust and confidence is reposed and who accepts the trust and confidence is in a superior position to exert influence over the dependent party. A presumption of undue influence arises whenever either party benefits from the transaction over the other, however innocuous the circumstances may seem. Breach of fiduciary duty is to some extent a strict liability offense, meaning if it occurs consequences may be set in motion that run the course to an expensive end.

In 2002 Family Code section 721 was amended to expand this confidential fiduciary relationship and impose the same rights and duties as applies to nonmarital business partners under the California Corporations Code, and includes but is not limited to:

(1) Providing each spouse access at all times to any books kept regarding a transaction for the purposes of inspection and copying;

(2) Rendering upon request true and full information of all things affecting any transaction which concerns the community property.

(3) Accounting to the spouse, and holding as trustee, any benefit or profit derived from any transaction by one spouse without the consent of the other spouse which concerns the community property (i.e., all property acquired by a married person during the marriage).

While Section 721 does not mention Registered Domestic Partners, it applies to them as well.

One major consequence is that transactions which benefit only one spouse may be set aside by the other, either before or during a divorce proceedings.

As a practical matter for divorcing couples, this means:

a) If one party has benefited over the other in a transaction involving money or property and thereby gained an advantage during the course of the marriage, the law presumes the advantage was gained through undue influence exerted on the part of the benefited party, and the transaction is presumed invalid and can be set-aside;

b) The burden of convincing a Court that a set-aside should not occur then shifts to the advantaged spouse;

c) All this can occur without regard to good or bad intent on the part of the advantaged spouse (i.e., actually intending to defraud as opposed to merely being sloppy). Either way the law declares the transaction to be the result of "constructive fraud". Once the Court finds constructive fraud the transactions can be set aside, the benefited party can be ordered to pay restitution to the other and to disgorge any profits they alone received, title may be reformed to include both parties' names, or the property may be held in trust for both on a present and go-forward basis rather than in the name of the one alone. If there is an actual fraudulent intent, the remedies to the injured spouse are more severe.

The fact that parties have separated or that a dissolution or legal separation is pending does not end the parties' fiduciary responsibilities. Family Code section 1100(e) continues those same duties "until such time as the assets and liabilities have been divided by the parties or by a court."

Remedies for breach of the fiduciary duty as described in Family Code section 721, and section 1100, include an amount equal to one-half of the value of any asset undisclosed or transferred in breach of fiduciary duty, plus attorney fees. This includes inadvertent or unintentional violations. Family Code section 1101(g). Where a court comes to believe a spouse acted intentionally to defraud the other spouse, the Court "shall" award 100% of the value of what should have been disclosed, or what should not have been transferred, to the innocent spouse! FC section 1101(h).

If you have a business, or investments in real estate or simply a family residence, and certain transactions have occurred, you may have a problem. If you are a dependent spouse, regardless whether the other party intended to cheat you, you may have important entitlements and remedies.

This is one of the most complicated, emerging areas of California family law. Do not go it alone! In every dissolution and legal separation case, regardless whether either party has an attorney, each party must exchange a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure, and unless expressly waived, a Final Declaration of Disclosure. If these documents contain errors, misinformation, or are incomplete the consequences can be financially devastating because an entire settlement or judgment may later be set aside. These documents sit as leverage tools and land mines for years to come.

Author: T.W. Arnold, III, CFLS

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