What is a Subpoena?

Divorce brings everyone a set of unknowns, especially if you’re part of a high-conflict proceeding. Assets, debts, child support, and alimony can all be hotly contested issues. Examples of common concerns regarding these matters include:

  • My spouse works under the table, so according to our tax return, he is not required to pay spousal or child support. How can I prove he is working?
  • I suspect my spouse is hiding or failing to disclose assets. How can I get her to reveal everything?
  • How can I prove my spouse earns more than is being disclosed to the court?
  • My spouse claims to be too sick to work, but I suspect it’s a lie to avoid paying spousal support. How can I get to the truth?

For these sorts of questions, a legal document called a subpoena is a helpful tool. If you think subpoenas are just for courtroom dramas, think again. They’re often used in matters of family law and can make a big difference to the outcome of your divorce proceeding.

What Is a Subpoena?

In its most basic form, a California subpoena is a document that legally requires the recipient to do something. It’s a mandatory request – ignoring one has legal consequences, unless the recipient has a sound reason. For example, a doctor may refuse to disclose medical records, citing patient privilege. An attorney or a clerk of the courts can issue a deposition subpoena. Subpoenas come in many forms and each serves a different purpose:

Civil Subpoena for Appearance and Trial

A court representative or attorney may issue this type of subpoena if he or she wishes to compel a person to appear at a hearing for evidentiary purposes. Recall our first example, when we illustrated how some spouses make money under the table. Issuing this type of subpoena would require the spouse to appear before the courts and declare his earnings under oath, for the court record. Strategically, this gets the other party to spill the beans about earnings and what he spends, increasing chances of a fair child or spousal support arrangement.

A Civil Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing Declaration is similar to that type of subpoena. Remove the legalese and this is simply another kind of civil subpoena that requires the recipient to bring certain things to the court hearing. For example, someone who is paid under the table might be required to bring other financial documents, such as invoices for services rendered. 

Subpoena for Business Records

This type of subpoena is helpful if you suspect your spouse is hiding or underreporting assets. It requires the recipient to disclose financial records or documents such as bank statements, investment accounts, employment records, credit card statements, and medical records (for example, if a spouse claims he or she is unfit to work).

Here is another scenario in which this type of subpoena would be helpful: A soon-to-be ex-husband says he is unable to make child support payments, but the wife knows he bought a new car and travels frequently. A subpoena of credit card records and bank statements would reveal that the spouse’s spending habits are too high for his reported income, forcing him to pay more child support.

A subpoena is a valuable document in divorce proceedings. It ensures a timely and accurate disclosure of all documents and establishes those documents for the court record. Better yet, it can help you pay attorney’s fees (if the spouse originally failed to cooperate with your informal request for documents). Ask an attorney if a subpoena is right for your case.