Divorce Primer in Alaska
Equitable Distribution of marital assets and debts in Alaska
DissolutionIn Alaska, there are two different types of proceedings that will dissolve a marriage. The first, and more affordable option, is through an agreed upon dissolution. In a dissolution, the parties must agree on all property related and child custody issues, and file a single petition with the court that is signed by both spouses in front of a notary. Whatever you do, you should always have a lawyer review your dissolution agreement before signing, and it is even better to seek counsel to help with mediation or negotiations. After filing the petition, the court schedules a hearing normally about 20-30 days out. The parties then appear in court, with or without counsel. At the hearing, the judge or "master" reviews their agreement, takes some jurisdictional testimony from the parties and usually enters a decree of dissolution that day, or within a few days of the hearing, approving of the parties' agreement.
DivorceThe other type of proceeding is a contested divorce. A divorce is necessary when the parties cannot agree on all of their property and / or child custody issues. The first party to file a complaint for divorce becomes the plaintiff, and earns the right to present their case first at trial. The other spouse then must file an answer. The complaint and answer together explain in general terms the primary issues that the parties differ on. A lawsuit then ensues, and the parties engage in what is called "discovery" to greater or lesser degrees (i.e. appraisals of property; medical exams; pension evaluations / actuarials, demanding other party release or produce documents or other information, etc.) typically depending upon the risk / reward of doing so. Ultimately, the parties either compromise and settle before trial, with the benefit of private mediators or judicial settlement conferences, or they litigate their issues at a trial, before the judge.
Equitable DistributionTo assist you in identifying your property related issues, keep in mind the following. Alaska is an equitable distribution state. This means that the court will attempt to address the net effects of the divorce by equitably distributing the parties' marital estate. There are three steps to equitable distribution: characterization, valuation, and equitable division.
To characterize what is marital, you must determine what accrued to the marriage (from day one through date of separation) both on the positive and negative side of the marital ledger, except gifts and inheritance. There are other exceptions, but generally, what you acquire before marriage, and after separation is your separate property and will not be divied up in the divorce. The separation date can either be agreed upon or is the date the parties effectively unraveled their financial affairs.
Generally, valuation of marital property is based upon fair market value as close to the date of divorce as possible (agreement or divorce trial date). This means garage sale or Ebay values govern as opposed to replacement value.
Equitable division consists of deciding who gets what. It is based upon a number of statutory considerations that look at the relative age of the parties, length of the marriage, relative health, access to health insurance, relative education and financial opportunity, among other things. The court starts with a presumption that a 50-50 split is equitable and then will vary from an even split if one party is disadvantaged on balance, looking at all the statutory factors. A 70-30 split is nearing the upper end of what the court will generally entertain.
AlimonyIf the court finds the property division is inadequate to address the net effects of the divorce, then it will entertain an award of alimony or spousal support. Such an award must be necessary and just, and there is an abundance of caselaw on finer points surrouding this issue, but generally alimony is limited to a year or two in duration, for "reorientation" purposes and is always subject to modification when circumstances change. Another type of alimony is "rehabilitative" alimony that is used to help a disadvantaged spouse obtain the educational training or career training necessary for him or her to re-enter the workforce typically to help meet the needs of the parties' children and provide for a secure retirement in light of the divorce.
Early Resolution Program for Self-Represented LitigantsThe Early Resolution Program (ERP) was created as a pilot program in Anchorage by the Family Law Self Help Resource Center (FLSHC) and is now available in most courts throughout Alaska to help pro-se or self represented litigants to divorce. For more information on this program and how it works, you can search google for a variety of helpful materials. You can also visit the Alaska FLSHC website available through the court system's website for an abundance of resources, forms, and information to help you better understand the sometimes confounding court procedures involved.
Mediation / Judicial Settlement / Collaborative DivorceThere are a variety of alternative dispute resolution options available to parties in need of a divorce. Typically, mediation is a good option for people who are able to communicate and are committed to fashioning a fair split of assets and debts. The best mediators are trained lawyers who have a good background in real estate, business and family law matters. Retired judges are also good mediators with good track records of reaching successful settlements. When parties cannot get along, however, mediation is typically a waste of money and time. Mediators often charge hourly rates of between $200-$350 per hour to mediate cases, plus expenses. Judicial settlement, is an excellent way to efficiently resolve cases when parties find it difficult to communicate or reach agreement, and utilizes tax payer provided judge's at no additional expense. Judge's merely cost the filing fee (currently $200) in Alaska. Collaborative divorce is an ingenious new tool emerging with lawyers who have seen the injustice and inefficiencies that can result from the adversarial system. When you interview lawyers, ask to see if they have experience dealing with collaborative methods in divorce, as there are a variety of creative tools (collaborative agreements) to employ to help parties settle their affairs in a fair and equitable way, with far less impacts on children, and your pocket book in a contentious adversarial divorce.