Family Law in the Trump Era

Given the much-publicized intent of newly inaugurated President Trump to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and to clamp down on illegal immigration, questions are beginning to arise about how the new Administration in Washington, D.C. will affect family law cases here in California.

California has been at the so-called “bleeding edge” of social issues and movements for decades, many of which run counter to the beliefs of conservatives in the state and across the country.  And for better or for worse (I would argue “both”), the state shows no signs of slowing down that trend.  In family law, those social issues affect family law participants in three distinct ways.  First, with respect to same-sex relationships.  Second, with respect to health insurance issues.  And third, with respect to illegal immigration.

The good news for same-sex couples is that the United States Supreme Court ruled in June of 2015 that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. As a result, there’s not much that the new Administration can do short of trying to pass a Constitutional amendment, and so not much is likely to change in the relatively near future.

On the other hand, the bad news is that the Administration and its allies in Congress can do substantial damage to the healthcare system for those who need and rely on health insurance.  I say “bad news,” because thus far all we’ve really heard out of Washington, D.C. is bluster and hyperbole about “repealing” Obamacare, but not very much about how they intend to replace it.  One of the fundamental difficulties some spouses have after their marriages are terminated is that they no longer are eligible to remain on the other spouse’s health insurance plan through employment. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, couples frequently had to devise creative ways to maintain health insurance for a stay-at-home or an ill spouse, including sometimes not terminating the marriage at all (e.g. legal separation), or reaching agreements where the higher wage earner would subsidize the other spouse for some period of time.  In the wake of the ACA, the need for those creative solutions has mostly gone away because the premium subsidies and the guarantees of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions removed many of the barriers to insurance.  The best I can say about this issue for now, is to stay tuned.

Finally, there are concerns being raised by some in the family law community about whether or not undocumented residents of the state should be afraid to appear in court to litigate custody, visitation or child support for their minor children.  While I am no expert in immigration law, and don’t purport to have the answer to those questions, I tend to believe that those worries are a bit unfounded at this time.  The California family courts have never, in my experience, ruled against a party regardless of that party’s immigration status.  I have witnessed family court judges make the same custody, visitation, child support, alimony and property division orders in cases where one (or both) parties were undocumented as they do in cases where both parties are full-fledged citizens.

California law does not require the family courts to report immigration status to state or federal officials, and so they don’t.  In fact, the federal government can’t force states to comply with federal immigration law at all (although they certainly try and can influence states’ decisions by threatening to withhold federal money).  Until there is some major policy shift in California to require cooperation with federal immigration law, which I don’t see coming anytime in the near or not-so-near future, I don’t expect that the family courts will operate in any other manner than that in which they currently do.  Now, having said that, there is one caveat:  family court proceedings in California are almost always open to the public, which means that any member of the public who attends a hearing in which a party is identified as an undocumented resident could potentially make a report to immigration authorities.  Yet, my sense is that these kinds of tips fall to the very bottom of the pile for immigration authorities who are already overworked, underpaid and overwhelmed with their own caseloads.

For more information about California family law and divorce issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks at (925) 465-2500 or (707) 398-6008.  You may also contact us directly through our website by clicking on the “Contact Us” links and buttons to the right of this article.

The Return of Flat-Fee Divorce

Sparks Family Law, Inc. is pleased to announce the return of our popular flat-fee divorce option commencing May 1, 2015.  Attorney Gary Sparks was one of the first Northern California family lawyers to introduce flat-fee billing (also known as “fixed-fee” billing) to his clients back in 2010.  As a result of increasing demand from our clients for flat-fee billing, we are excited to be able to reintroduce this option, effective immediately.

divorceMany divorce clients are worried about their legal fees, and often lie awake at night wondering how much their next bill will be, or how much that letter, phone call or email will cost.  Flat-fee pricing eliminates the uncertainty from the process, and gives clients the ability to know up front what their case is going to cost.

Under the traditional hourly billing model, a family law attorney collects an initial “retainer” (deposit) in advance at the start of the case — typically around $5,000 — and then bills against that retainer for every hour or fraction thereof.  Then, when the funds begin to run out, the attorney collects an additional retainer, and this cycle repeats until the case is complete.  Under this model, it is impossible to know in advance how much the case will cost.

On the other hand, under the flat-fee model, the attorney quotes the client a fee in advance for the case, and that fee remains fixed for the remainder of the case.  To keep costs as low as possible, the flat fee is quoted based on the assumption that the case will settle without litigation or court appearances.  If more is needed, such as filing or defending against a motion, preparing or responding to discovery or depositions, or appearing in court, the client is given a flat-fee schedule in advance that clearly details the cost for the additional work.

Flat-fee pricing represents a substantial value for clients, and simplifies the process for both attorney and client.  But it is important for clients to understand the limitations of flat-fee pricing ahead of time to avoid confusion and misunderstanding (such as additional costs for having to go to court).  The comprehensive fee agreement fully explains what is and what is not covered.  But even the additional work we do is done on a flat-fee basis per the fee schedule provided at the outset of the case.

Under the flat-fee model, clients have the assurance of knowing that everything necessary will be done to move their case forward, and that the attorney is not doing anything unnecessary to maximize legal fees.

If you are concerned about your own legal fees in a family law matter, consider the flat, fixed-fee model for your case.  This will challenge you and your attorney to do everything possible to settle the case.  But it is important that you weigh your options and consider whether you prefer the tried-and-true approach of hourly billing or the certainty and simplicity of flat-fee services.

Watch our website over the next week as we update our Fees & Services pages to reflect the return of our flat-fee pricing.

Depression and Mental Illness: Lessons from Robin Williams’ Heartbreaking Death

130814-robin1Depression and mental illness are very real, and can have very dangerous consequences if not properly treated or left untreated.  I thought I would take a moment today to discuss these issues while the country — no, make that the world — mourns the apparent suicide yesterday of actor and comedian, Robin Williams, in Tiburon, California.

I will admit that I used to (wrongly) believe that depression, and mental illness as a whole, were a fiction invented by lazy, weak-minded people. Perhaps this was a byproduct of my upbringing in a strict Catholic, half-German, half military family. It was expected that “men were men,” things were black and white with no shades of gray (e.g. right is right and wrong is wrong) and people had to learn to “suck it up,” face their troubles and move forward.

Although this perspective is still held by many people today, nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, this target is gradually moving in the right direction.  Depression and other forms of mental illness affect millions of people around the world. You probably know someone right now who suffers from mental illness of some kind, although you may not be aware of it.  These are not all weak-minded people; many of them are quite strong.

It is a given that when our bodies are faced with sickness and illness, we don’t feel well and we don’t function well. But the same holds true when our minds are faced with sickness and illness.  We just don’t see it as easily.  And, because of the societal stigmas associated with mental illness, many people who suffer from it hide it behind closed doors.  As a result, we live in a country where suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and, on average, 105 people commit suicide every single day according to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

I work in family law, perhaps the most stressful area of law known to man. I routinely work with clients who are experiencing the worst times of their lives. Whether you are facing a broken marriage, child custody dispute, or division of money, retirement and assets, family law is extremely personal and can leave a life-long scar that may take many years to heal, if ever. I should know; I have regrettably been divorced two times, and still suffer from the scars of each marital break up. I’ve fought the custody and financial battles, and still struggle to remain relevant in my eldest son’s life. Additionally, I have also experienced a close family member’s struggle with depression and witnessed her accompanying battle with internal demons.

But this article is not about me.  It’s about the clients I see, on an almost daily basis, who struggle with the issues raised by their divorce or family law case. One client, who is also a good friend of mine now, was nearly paralyzed by stress for the first three months as his marriage was ending.  Other clients sit in my office and have complete breakdowns resulting from the stressors and legal problems that they face.

robin-williams-dead-obit-2As we learn more about Robin Williams’ death, details begin to surface.  Williams had previously been divorced twice and faced substantial financial difficulties afterwards, grappling with how to manage his money (or lack thereof) and to downsize his lifestyle.  He purportedly returned to doing a television show because he needed the paycheck, and it has been reported in the mainstream media today that the recent cancellation of that show put him into a tailspin.  Williams also had a very public history of battles with alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness.  People who know him have described him as having a very “dark side,” although he himself did everything possible to ensure that we, the public, always saw the side of him that was “on” — spontaneous, witty, crazy, creative or even manic.  Williams was not the only person fighting those battles or trying to hide them, but he’s definitely the most visible right now.

There are many resources available today to help people who are struggling with stress, pressure, depression, or other mental illness.  Sometimes it’s as simple as calling your doctor or a local therapist.  Whenever I speak with clients who appear to be struggling, I encourage and push them to meet with a counselor as soon as possible so they can begin the process of getting help, relief, medical treatment or just an outlet for venting (divorce lawyers are too expensive for venting!).  I generally even suggest this to clients who don’t outwardly or visibly show signs of needing help.  There is nothing wrong with asking for help, but there is plenty wrong and at risk with not asking for it.

I have been asked by several people to post a link on my site to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), and I am happy to do so.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. By dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the call is routed to the nearest crisis center in their national network of more than 150 crisis centers. The Lifeline’s national network of local crisis centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals 24/7, day and night.

The world has lost an amazing talent, and his family has lost an amazing man, father and husband.  I hope that we can all learn from his heartbreaking death how dangerous depression and mental illness can be, and that in the aftermath of this tragedy we become more compassionate, supportive and encouraging to those who are suffering, and more aware of those who are suffering quietly.  If the publicity surrounding Williams’ death brings some light to those in need, and if we are able, somehow, to slow the pace of suicide among those with mental illnesses, then perhaps something good will have come out of something so terribly bad.

For more information about California family law and divorce issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks at (925) 465-2500 or (707) 398-6008.  You may also contact us directly through our website by clicking on the “Contact Us” links and buttons to the right of this article.

Images courtesy of Reuters and Variety.

 

 

 

 

Special Guest Gary Sparks Returns This Week to KGO-AM 810 in San Francisco

Gary D. Sparks on KGO Radio

We are very happy to announce that our very own Gary Sparks will make a return appearance on KGO-AM 810 in San Francisco as a special guest on the Ronn Owens Program this upcoming Friday, July 25, 2014 at 10:00 am.  Gary and Ronn will discuss current issues in California divorce and family law, and Gary will field questions posed by callers into the program from throughout the Bay Area and Northern California.

Gary has previously made several appearances on KGO radio, covering issues such as custody and visitation, child support, alimony, and property division at divorce. Gary and Ronn have also discussed the condition of the family courts in California in the wake of the devastating budget cuts imposed on the court system by the state legislature during (and after) the “Great Recession.”

Gary D. Sparks is a divorce, family law and estate planning attorney with local offices in Walnut Creek and Fairfield, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  KGO radio is located at 810 on the AM radio dial, and has been broadcasting since 1924.  With 50,000 watts of broadcast power, KGO radio is accessible throughout the western United States east to the Rocky Mountains, and in northern Mexico, southwestern Canada, and Alaska at night. 

Ronn Owens, KGO Radio

Ronn Owens has had the top rated program with KGO for over 35 years. Over the years, Ronn has won numerous awards and was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in December 2007. The National Association of Broadcasters presented him with the prestigious Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year Award in 2003 and again in 2010. Talkers Magazine named Ronn one of the Top 25 Greatest Radio Talk Show Hosts of All Time, ranking him 13th and the top local personality in the country.

For more information about California family law and divorce issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks at (925) 465-2500 or (707) 398-6008.  You may also contact us directly through our website by clicking on the “Contact Us” links and buttons to the right of this article.

Welcome to Our New Site!

Yes, it’s taken a while, but we’ve finally completed the transition to our new web and blog site. As you can imagine, an awful lot of time, energy and planning went into this project. You may have also noticed that we’ve changed our name. The Law Offices of Gary D. Sparks is now Sparks Family Law, Inc.

We’re excited about the new look and features on the site, and hope that you are, too. We plan to make regular blog postings each week from this point forward to keep you informed of recent developments in family law, to provide useful information, or just to relay interesting facts or stories as they arise or as we come across them.

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We want to hear from you.  As you browse through out new site, please let us know if we goofed and made a mistake somewhere.  Despite the best laid plans of mice and me, occasionally errors can slip through.  Or, if you want more information about other California family law and divorce issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks at (925) 465-2500 or (707) 398-6008. You may also send a contact request directly through our website by clicking on the “Contact Us” buttons to the right of this article.

After 40 Years, Sesame Street Tackles the Issue of Divorce

After more than 40 years, Sesame Street has never directly dealt with the issue of divorce and its impact on children. Until now.

Sesame Workshop recently launched its “Little Children, Big Challenges” initiative, including an online episode featuring Abby Caddabby, Elmo and Rosita. This episode is only available online, and not on the air. According to child psychiatrist Josh Weiner, this new video could be a useful tool for parents to use to discuss divorce with their children.sesame-street-abby_510x313

The episode features Abby Cadabby talking about her parents’ divorce, how she splits her time between her mom and dad, and her “big feelings” about it all after she is asked to draw a picture of her home and then draws two pictures.

Sesame Street has always had a social component of trying to help children deal with difficult issues in their lives, but it has also struggled with how to address the big “D.” Twenty years ago, in 1992, the company scripted and shot a potential episode about Snuffleupagus’s parents divorcing. But when they tested it with pre-schoolers, some were so upset they cried. As a result, the show never aired.

Because the episode is only available online, parents can choose to watch it when they feel their child is ready, or can choose not have their child see it at all. Ultimately, however parents discuss and share their children’s feelings and concerns about divorce, it is vitally important that they focus on making them understand that divorce is not their fault and that they will always be loved by both of their parents. It’s a valiant effort, and in our opinion, makes for worthwhile viewing.

Gary Sparks to Return as a Special Guest on the Ronn Owens Program This Week

For those of you who missed Gary’s first appearance on the Ronn Owens Program (on KGO-AM 810) this past September, or those who want to listen in again, he will be returning as Ronn’s guest this upcoming Thursday, February 9th, 2012 at 10:00 am. Once again, Ronn and Gary will be discussing California family law and divorce issues, and fielding calls from throughout the greater Bay Area and Northern California.

Ronn Owens hosts the top-rated program on KGO-AM and recently celebrated his 35th anniversary with the station. Ronn recently won the 2010 Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year, and has truly become a Bay Area icon.

Why Hire a Lawyer and Not a Legal Document Preparer?

This is a question a number of clients have asked me over the past few years, especially as the economy continues to slumber along here in California. And it seems tempting, of course, to find ways to pinch pennies until things improve. However, I have also been hired by many clients who have tried to handle family law or divorce cases on their own, and found out that they have actually made matters worse for themselves.

It is important to understand that attorneys have experience in the courtroom and know what Judges want to see and hear. They can anticipate opposing arguments and games the other side may play. Attorneys know and can argue the laws regarding custody, support, property division, etc. that the Judges decide by.

Attorneys can also represent you in court and can speak on your behalf with the court and the opposing party. Attorneys can give you legal advice and guidance, even if you only hire a consulting attorney part-time on the side on an as-needed basis. At the very least, I firmly believe that every party to a family law matter should have a consulting attorney who can answer questions and review documents to ensure that his/her rights are being protected and that he/she is not being taken advantage of by the other side.

Sure, many of these so-called divorce services and document preparers can fill out court forms, but they are not permitted to tell you “how” to fill them out or “why” to fill them out a certain way. They are prohibited from giving you legal advice, interpreting documents, or warning you of the pitfalls or consequences of your choices. They cannot tell you what information to insert in your documents; in fact, they are not supposed to even select the documents you want them to prepare for you. They cannot appear in court, explain to the Judge why you did or didn’t do something. And they are not trained in the law nor in court procedures, and are not licensed to practice law in California. And most importantly, if you are given bad advice and decide to follow that advice, you have to live with the outcome with little or no recourse.

Several years ago, independent paralegals in California actually lost the ability to call themselves “paralegals” in part because of concerns about how many of them crossed the line between document preparation and legal advice. As a result, these independent operators now must call themselves “legal document preparers.”

Would you allow your child to ride in a car with a driver who had never driven before, or fly on an airplane with a non-pilot at the controls? Then why risk custody, support or property, or worse, by not hiring an attorney? Family law cases affect more aspects of clients’ lives than any other area of law. In a typical family law case, the court is making orders about your children, your income, your home, your bank accounts, your pets, your personal property, your retirement accounts, your business, your credit cards… and the list goes on. These are all important issues.

You may decide to hire a legal document preparer to assist you with your court papers because you have no other financial option. I can certainly understand that. We are living in unprecedented economic times, and the downturn has affected almost all of us, myself included. However, it would be in your best interest — and I strongly recommend — that you find a way to make arrangements with a family law attorney to spend even just an hour or two with you to make sure you are doing everything possible to protect yourself, your children and your family moving forward.

Census Report Shows Marriage Works Better in Pennsylvania than in California

According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau and reported on in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvanians are both marrying and divorcing at a lower rate than the rest of the country (including California), a quality they share with many men and women of the Northeast.

That may be because more people in the Northeast delay their marriages until their education is complete. Delayed, or later, marriages have traditionally been viewed as more likely to last longer. That’s a link making itself known more favorably in states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York than in places like Arkansas, Georgia and West Virginia, where divorce rates are well above the norm, according to the data released today from the 2009 American Community Survey.

Sociologists have found that factors such as age, income, religion and education can all play key roles in timing and success of marriage. Diana Elliott, a Census Bureau family demographer, said the relatively high percentage of people who pursue degrees in the Northeast is presumably a primary reason for lower marriage and divorce rates. “In the Northeast, first marriages tend to be delayed and the marriage rates are lower, meaning there are also fewer divorces,” she said.

At the same time that marriages have been postponed, there has been a surge in cohabitation among unmarried couples across the United States. The new census report does not address those relationships and their outcomes.