Tools of the Trade

Top 10 Guidelines for Handling Family Law Cases Effectively
guest author: Heather D. Bunduka

Everyone knows that family law is a very emotional; either one party or the other feels betrayed. From a paralegalís standpoint, we will likely have to serve as a sounding block for many clients, but should not devote our time to being "therapists." A paralegal may be relied upon to have contact with a client to achieve initial filings, disclosure requirements, discovery responses and possibly trial preparation.

  1. Find Out What Works Best for Your Attorney
    You must understand what works best for your attorney. Each attorney has their own way of doing things. Your job will be so much easier if you comport to their way of doing things rather than trying to change it. That said, don't hesitate to offer solutions to your attorney; just be prepared, they may want to continue to do things their way. But there are those times that they may surprise you and want to give your idea a chance. So speak up.
  1. Client Intake
    Obtain as much information from the client as possible during the first meeting such as
    1. client's information: name (including any other names they may have used), home address, mailing address (if different from home address), work address, home and/or office fax number, cell phone, office telephone number, email address, social security number, and date of birth (if representing the moving party, obtain their spouse's physical description: age, height, hair color, eye color, build, any distinguishing factors such as glasses or tattoos)
    2. opposing party's name (including any other names they may have used), and address
    3. opposing counsel's name, address, telephone number, fax number
    4. the parties' date of marriage, date of separation, and the names and dates of birth of any minor.
    Keep a hard copy of this information, including the court and department to which your case is assigned, in your file in case you have computer problems and need access to this information.
  1. Financial Information
    Provide your client with a list of documents that you need them to gather to assist in the preparation of their filings. Federal and state income tax returns for the past 3 years, pay check stubs for the past 2 months, copies of all deeds to properties to which your client has an interest, mortgage statements, vehicle registration/title including any purchase agreement for said vehicle, copies of your client's monthly recurring living expenses (i.e., gas, electric, medical, child care, etc.), financial statements (i.e., checking, savings, CD, etc.), investment account statements (i.e., 401(k), pension, etc.), and any loan applications (whether denied or approved) for the past 2 years.
  1. Initial Filing
    Initial filings, in California at least, are fairly simple since family law is form driven. That said, selecting the date of separation, requests for custody, visitation, child support, spousal support and attorneys fees are crucial and require an attorney's review. Each party is required to file a Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) if there are minor children involved. In addition, in California, there are automatic temporary restraining order which preclude a party from
    1. removing a minor child from the state without written consent for the other parent
    2. transferring, encumbering, hypothecating, concealing or in any way disposing of any property without the written consent of the other party
    3. cashing, borrowing against, cancelling, transferring, disposing of, or changing the beneficiaries of any insurance; or
    4. creating a non-probate transfer or modifying a non-probate transfer.
  1. Keep the Client's File Organized
    Not only should you have separate files for correspondence, pleadings, discovery, notes, but you should also have separate files for the tax returns, deeds, mortgage, vehicles, monthly expenses, bank statements, pension/retirement/401(k) and loan applications to which you have asked your client to gather. This will make it easier for you to access information.
  1. Financial Disclosure
    In California, parties engaged in a dissolution proceeding are required to exchange financial data (i.e. Income and Expense Declaration and Schedule of Assets and Debts, which should include all back-up documentation), by way of a preliminary declaration of disclosure, and a final declaration of disclosure if the matter should go to trial. By asking your client to provide their financial information at the inception of the matter, it will make it easier for you to complete the forms on their behalf, thereby limiting the pressure on them. In California, the final declaration of disclosure can be waived; however, the preliminary declaration of disclosure is mandatory.
  1. Deadlines and Reminders
    Be sure to calendar all deadlines, including but not limited to:
    1. if representing the moving party, the last day to serve the petition, the last day to file a peremptory challenge of the judge assigned to your case, the last day in which the respondent may answer/the date a default can be taken
    2. if you represent the responding party, the last day to which a response may be filed
    3. deadlines to file preliminary declarations of disclosure, and final declarations of disclosure, if necessary
    4. order to show cause/motion deadlines
    5. discovery cut-off; and
    6. trial deadlines, which may include mandatory settlement conference deadlines.
  1. Provide Your Client With What to Expect During Family Law Litigation
    Although no two cases are the same, it's a good idea to provide your client with standard procedures so they know what to expect. From the filing of the petition, which includes automatic temporary restraining orders in California, and the filing of the UCCJEA, through the discovery and disclosure stage, through the request for trial setting, and ultimately the trial stage.
  1. Be Sympathetic to Your Client
    Try to remember that you do this every day, but this is likely your client's first divorce.
  1. Save - Save - Save
    Although this doesn't necessarily relate to family law, it is important to remember to SAVE - SAVE - SAVE. The keystroke for saving in Microsoft and WordPerfect applications is Ctrl + S. Use this - use this often. Nothing would be worse than working on a document for hours without saving, to lose all the information just to have to start again from scratch.

Any mistake (EXCEPT STATUTES OF LIMITATIONS-which traditionally does not apply in family law) can be fixed in law. It may be expensive, but it can be fixed. That doesn't mean you should take a cavalier approach with your job. On the contrary, take your job very seriously and be cautious in your decisions. Just know that you don't have to prepare your resignation paperwork if you make a mistake. Be forthcoming with your attorney and own up to your mistakes as soon as they become aware to you. Take responsibility for your actions.


 

Heather D. Bunduka is a paralegal with the Manhattan Beach law firm of Rombro & Associates, where the primary practice is divorce, child custody, child support, premarital agreements, spousal support, family law, and other areas of civil litigation and business law. Ms. Bunduka earned her paralegal certificate from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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