What in the World is a Bifurcation?
If someone were to ask me to identify the single biggest myth I’ve encountered over my many years of practicing family law, it would be the belief that a divorce is finalized by the mere passage of six months. This is simply not true. Six months merely represents the earliest possible date judgment can be entered. The six months does not begin to run until the date the other party is served. It is not the date of filing that triggers the clock. Incidentally, the waiting period is actually six months and one day.
For a couple to be divorced at this earliest possible, non-automatic date, many things must happen. A complete agreement on all issues would need to be reached. The judgment packet would have to be submitted in ample time for processing prior to expiration of the waiting period. If the parties need to participate in custody mediation, need to have their real property appraised or a pension valuation done, it is virtually impossible to get everything completed, and a judgment packet submitted, in sufficient time for the divorce to be final right at expiration of the minimum mandatory waiting period.
Sometimes things are going to take a very long time to resolve. Perhaps the parties are involved in an ugly custody battle. Maybe they own a business that requires extensive evaluation by a forensic accountant. What to do when you are anxious to get divorced but have many unresolved issues?
Attempt to bifurcate.
Bifurcation is a fancy word that basically means to divide something into parts. In the world of family law, it means to separate the parties’ marital status from all other issues. The court can grant your divorce and reserve its right to later decide all other issues. This is called a “status-only judgment.” Other issues can be bifurcated as well. This article is solely regarding the marital status
Reasons for Bifurcation
It is not uncommon for one (sometimes both) of the spouses to be anxious to get remarried. This would certainly be a legitimate basis to ask the court to bifurcate and enter a status-only judgment. When resolution of underlying custody or property issues are nowhere in sight, this too would be cause for a bifurcation.
Pros and Cons
There is a belief that early termination of marital status in the form of a bifurcated judgment can help promote healing and facilitate resolution of other issues. It can certainly make the party who desired entry of the status-only judgment happy.
On the flip side, I have been involved in several cases where just the opposite was true. One party no longer seemed motivated to cooperate in getting the other issues resolved after obtaining their bifurcation request.
I Want Out as Early as Possible – How Do I Make It Happen?
There are very strict requirements that must be met before the court can grant a bifurcation and enter a status-only judgment. There are two paths. When the requirements have been satisfied, the parties can 1) enter into a stipulation (voluntary agreement) and submit it to the court, or if contested, 2) the party desiring the bifurcation can file for a court date.
Only very slight evidence needs to be set forth by the party asking for the bifurcation. A party desiring to oppose a request for bifurcation must set forth compelling evidence. This is because of the public policy generally favoring entry termination of marital status while other issues are worked out.
The Cost of Admission for Bifurcation
Regardless of the path, the requirements set forth in Family Code 2337 are the same. Bifurcating is a complex process, as termination of the parties’ marital status affects certain very important rights. Perhaps the most important one of all is health insurance coverage. When one party has the other covered under their group health plan at work, they are prohibited by the Standard Family Law Restraining Orders on the backside of the Summons from canceling such coverage during the pendency of the divorce.
Bifurcation and entry of a status-only judgment very early in the process could cause a spouse to lose this coverage. Family Code 2337 does not allow this to happen and sets forth precise procedures to be followed to ensure the ongoing availability of coverage if the bifurcation is granted. A party seeking the bifurcation must, until judgment has been entered on all other issues, maintain all existing medical coverage for the other party and any minor dependents so long as eligible to do so. If not eligible to do so, for example if the employer will not allow them to carry a now former spouse, the party must, at their sole expense, pay for coverage comparable to the existing coverage to the extent available. If not available, the party is responsible to pay, and demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction the ability to pay, for medical care for the other party and minor dependents to the extent care would have been covered but for the status-only judgment.
Likewise, there are precise requirements for making sure that entitlement to pension or retirement plan benefits are not lost by granting the early termination of marital status. The court can make a provisional order granting the other party one-half the value of any pension or retirement accounts in which the community has an interest and order that the plan administrator be provided with a copy. Numerous other requirements and conditions can be imposed, including the catchall set forth in Family Code 2337 (10) – any other condition the court determines is just and equitable.
Is it worth it? The jury is still out. Some family law practitioners believe bifurcations are so onerous that it is preferable to resolve all issues globally. My main reluctance is a bifurcation can sometimes act as a disincentive for the other party to cooperate in settling. But, if your case is complex, no resolution is on the horizon and your future spouse is, you may well want to bifurcate.
Bifurcations are a complicated and nuanced procedure. Call today to schedule a consultation with one of the skilled attorneys at Cornwall Family Law to discuss your situation. Also, like and follow our Facebook page to get the most up to date information!