Default Judgments Must Match Divorce Petition Relief Sought

Posted on February 25th, 2013

Default Judgments  – Trial Courts Must Carefully Examine Petitioner’s Complaint

A default judgment in dissolution of marriage cases is a judgment attained when the respondent does not respond to the case and the petitioner files a request with the court to move forward in the case without the respondent’s involvement.  The word “default” is literally defined as a defendant’s (in family law the defendant is called a “respondent”) failure to respond to a summons and complaint (in family law the complaint is called a “petition”).

In the recent unpublished case of Lee & Fant, the California Court of Appeal instructed trial court judges to closely examine the relief sought in a default judgment packet submitted by a petitioner with the petitioner’s originally filed complaint to ensure the same relief is being sought.  In Lee, Wife’s petition asked that a property in Fallbrook, San Diego County, California be confirmed to Wife as her separate property, along with a Yukon truck (these two assets were worth a combined almost half million dollars, and Wife wrote that the debt associated with these properties was exactly the same as the value down to the penny, which of course would be nearly impossible).  By asking the court to confirm these items as separate property, Wife was indicating that the assets were her separate property to begin with.

Wife’s property declaration listed the Fallbrook property and Yukon, but she did not distinguish whether these assets were community property or Wife’s separate property.  In default matters, the petitioner is required to actually file a property declaration.  In traditional cases where the respondent files a response, a property declaration does not need to be filed, only served on the other party.

Wife’s default judgment proposal also included a provision where Husband had to repay Wife $23,000 for debts incurred during marriage, which was not indicated anywhere on her petition for divorce.

“It is a fundamental concept of due process that a judgment against a defendant cannot be entered unless he was given proper notice and an opportunity to defend.  California satisfies these due process requirements in default cases through CCP § 580.”  (Irmo Lippel (1990) 51 Cal.3d 1160, 1166.)  CCP § 580 (a), provides: “The relief granted to the plaintiff, if there is no answer, cannot exceed that demanded in the complaint . . . .”  A default judgment that awards relief greater than the amount specifically demanded in the complaint is void as beyond the court’s jurisdiction to the extent of that excess and can be challenged and set aside at any time.  (Greenup v. Rodman (1986) 42 Cal.3d 822, 826, 829; Lippel, at p. 1163.)  For example, a judgment is void to the extent it orders a defendant in a marital dissolution proceeding to pay community debts or other obligations when that relief was not requested in the complaint and the matter is heard as a default matter.  (Valenzuela v. Valenzuela (1959) 168 Cal.App.2d 565, 566-567.)

Because Wife’s relief sought in the judgment she filed exceeded the relief sought in her petition, the Court of Appeals ordered the trial court to reconsider.

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