A few weeks ago, I wrote about a new child-support law that allows divorced parents to modify child-support payments. The law encourages parents to go to court without lawyers. Fill-in-the-blank forms substitute for a lawyer's pen, and printed instructions are supposed to make the whole process relatively painless.
I reported that the forms were not being heavily used in the Downtown Los Angeles courts and wondered aloud whether this was because nobody knew about the new law or because the forms were not as painless as they were supposed to be.
A Mira Loma woman writes to say that trying to wade through this "simplified" process was anything but simple. "It is clear that the law is not being used due to the fact that few can decipher the forms and instructions."
"My 15 years of education and working knowledge of the English language were of no assistance when attempting to follow the instructions for completing and filing the forms," she said. "I finally handed the thick packet to my lawyer, a costly solution but one which caused considerably less mental strain than the prospect of dealing with those incomplete instructions."
She added: "My first hint of trouble was when I could not find the answer to the question of who is the petitioner and who the respondent in this new action."
I can answer that one. The petitioner is the person seeking the modification. The respondent is the former spouse who may oppose the petition. A lawyer would know that, but a layman could be easily confused because the petitioner and respondent may have been different in the earlier divorce proceeding.
The legislature may want to consider simplifying the forms and the instructions.
As the woman noted: "The IRS provides citizens with step-by-step, line-by-line instructions for completing our annual tax forms. The legal minds who developed the child-support law . . . could have provided at least that much help to parents." But maybe we can't get away from professional legal assistance. I have a hard time reading the IRS instructions myself.
In that same column, I mentioned that lawyers are not allowed in the courtroom under this new procedure. But Glendale lawyer Robert K. Holmes, a certified family-law specialist, correctly points out that if the parent paying the support wants to be represented by counsel, that person can still hire a lawyer, and the hearing will proceed under the more traditional child-custody statute.
In other words, you can start without lawyers, and you don't have to use a lawyer, but in the end, you cannot prohibit your ex-spouse from using one. The only saving grace to all this is that once your spouse retains a lawyer, the judge has discretion to order him or her to pay for your lawyer if you hired one.
There is also one other very significant point that was briefly mentioned in the column but may have been missed. As I reported, the law allows for a 10% change in support payments each year. But that doesn't mean you have to go to court and seek a modification every year to get the 10% increase or reduction for that year, Holmes explains.
Increased or Decreased
The suppport may be increased or decreased 10% per year for each year that has passed since the child-support order went into effect.
"Thus," Holmes says, "if the current child-support order is five years old, this procedure will result in a 50% increase."
This 10% per year "stacking feature" is generally misunderstood, Holmes adds, which may be another reason why the law has been rarely used.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.