Sheila Sonenshine

Hon. Sheila Prell Sonenshine (Ret.)

Case Manager
Lisa Abrantes
T: 619-237-0801
F: 619-236-9032
5 Park Plaza, Suite 400, Irvine, CA 92614


The American Bar Association, State Bar of California, Orange County Bar Association and the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers have recognized Justice Sonenshine for her major family law accomplishments.

In her forty year career as a lawyer, Judge, Justice and JAMS mediator and arbitrator, she dealt with family law issues from the ordinary to the unique and complex. Justice Sonenshine's trial and appellate experience, knowledge of the law, business acumen and practical approach make her the ideal person to assist in the determination of these cases.

She is sensitive to the psychological aspects one must address to creatively resolve the most emotional and intractable cases. Lawyers particularly praise Justice Sonenshine’s ability to conclude the difficult matters, commenting until her involvement the challenge seemed insurmountable.

As a family law lawyer and Presiding Judge of the Orange County Superior Court Family Law Panel, she tried and presided over thousands of family law matters. On the Court of Appeal for almost 16 years, she was the family law "go-to" justice, authoring scores of published family law opinions and joining in hundreds of others. Sitting by assignment on the California Supreme Court, she authored the decision recognizing unwed fathers’ custodial rights.

Justice Sonenshine was an amicus co-counsel on the landmark California Supreme Court case recognizing family law matters proceed under the same general rules of procedure governing other civil cases.


  • One of the first California Certified Family Law Specialists
  • Appointed to the Orange County Superior Court in 1981, she served as the Presiding Judge of the Family Law Panel, also supervising the Settlement Conference Program and Law and Motion Calendar
  • Served on the Court of Appeal for over 16 years, writing scores of family law matters covering diverse issues and matters of first impression
  • Established the Court of Appeal’s first mandatory settlement conference program, mediating and settling all kinds of family law cases
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
  • Lecturer for forty years in all areas of family law
  • The Orange County Family Law Bar honored her, naming a settlement room named after her, for outstanding settlement record

Representative Matters
Justice Sonenshine has tried, presided over and written opinions on all types of family law cases including:

  • Pre Nuptial and Marital Settlement Agreements
    • Negotiating
    • Out of state and foreign
    • Enforceability and breach
    • Interpretations
    • Accountings
    • Motions to Set Aside
      • Fraud in the inducement (IRMO McNeil (1984) 160 CA 3d 548)
      • Vacations of interlocutory orders and MSAs (IRMO Testa (1983) 149 CA 3d 319)
    • Breach of warranty; merger of MSA into interlocutory judgment (IRMO Lane (1985) 165 CA 3d 1143)
    • Attorney fee award (Tanner v. Tanner (1997) 57 CA 4th 419)
  • Date of Separation
    • Long term marriage and separation (IRMO Hardin (1995) 38 CA 4th 448)
  • Property
    • Characterization
    • Date of valuation
    • Quasi, community property and separate (Moore/Marsden issues)
    • Comingling and tracing; title changes; refinancing
    • Out of state/foreign businesses and real properties
    • Family residence
    • Division of unimproved property
    • Valuation
      • Date of
      • Professional practice
      • Business; Moore/Marsden issues
      • Pre-marriage business (Imperato/Van de Camp)
    • Property owned with spouse’s family/3rd parties/in business together
    • Intertwining family assets
    • Missed assets
    • Breach of fiduciary duty/waste allegations; gifts to children and third parties
    • Equalizing payments
    • Credits (Epstein; Watts)
    • Asset concealment
    • Debt
      • Characterization
      • Division
      • Underwater stock/assets
      • Tax liabilities
    • Employment benefits
      • Stock options/vesting/date of exercise/community/separate property interests (IRMO Walker (1989) 216 CA 3d 644)
      • QDROs; military retirement benefits (IRMO Hughes (1994) 26 CA 4th 34)
      • Non-employee spouses’ community property interests in employment and retirement benefits
      • Marine Corps voluntary separation incentives (VSI) (IRMO Babauta (1998) 66 CA 4th 784
      • Former spouse’s right to receive interest in employed spouse’s public employment plan prior to retirement (IRMO Jensen (1991) 235 CA 3d 1137)
      • Community property interest in early retirement benefits (IRMO Frahm (1996) 45 CA 4th 536
  • Child and Spousal Support
    • Out of state and foreign orders
    • Short and long marriages; duration of marriage
      • Pre marriage cohabitation (IRMO Bukaty (1986) 186 CA 3d 1482)
    • Amount; duration; extension
      • Trial Court can award spousal support when supported spouse’s
        separate property and/or income there from insufficient to meet needs and paying spouse has ability to pay (IRMO McNaughton (1983) 145 CA 3d 845)
      • Trial Court jurisdiction to extend spousal support (IRMO Zlatnik (1988) 197 CA 3d 1284)(IRMO Benson (1985) 171 CA 3d 907)
      • Motion to extend spousal support- trial court consideration of facts from time of fist order or last motion. Supported spouse’s failure to become self supporting. (Dissenting opinion (IRMO Schaeffer 1999) 69 CA 4 801))
    • Spousal and child support security
    • Modification
      • Change of Circumstances ; no showing of change of circumstances is necessary to change from pendente lite spousal support award to permanent (IRMO McNaughton (1983) 145 CA 3d 845)
      • Abuse of discretion to increase spousal support order despite H’s increased ability to pay when wife failed to proved her needs at separation had not been met (IRMO Hopwood (1989)214 CA 3d 1604)
    • Arrearages
    • Accountings
    • High income payor
    • Alternative support considerations
      • Child support paid to a trust (IRMO Chandler (1997) 60 CA 4th 124)
    • Child and spousal support pre nuptial provisions
      • Spousal support waiver; pendente lite and permanent
    • Commissioners may hear contested proceedings under the Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement Act (Stratton v Stratton (1991) 226 CA 3d 1392)
    • Income determination
      • Intentional reduction
        • Earning capacity versus ability to pay (IRMO Padilla (1995) 38 CA 4th 1212)
        • Imputation of income
    • Gambling addiction
    • Support buyout
  • Custody and Visitation 
    • Time sharing
    • UCCJA child concealment
    • Move away
    • Out of state and foreign orders (Brown v. Brown (1999) 71 CA 4th 358)
    • Change of circumstances
      • No requirement of changed circumstances to justify modification from pendente lite to final order (IRMO Lewin (1986) 186 CA 3d 1482)
    • Parents’ gender preferences (IRMO Birdsall (1988) 197 CA 3d 1024)
    • Parental alienation
    • Support/concealed assets (Simon v. Steelman (1990) 224 CA 3d 1002)
  • Attorney and Expert Fees
    • Determinations
    • Amount
    • Liens
    • Third party payment (IRMO Schnabel (1994) 30 CA4th 747)
  • Discovery
    • Motion to compel-discovery not limited to date of separation (Lehman v. Superior Court (1986) 170 CA 3d 558)
    • Hidden assets
    • Third party discovery
    • Paternity proceedings and right to discover alleged father’s state income tax returns (Thomas B. v. Superior Court (1985) 175 CA 3d 255)
    • May join corporation for discovery purposes when spouse is minority shareholder (Schnabel v. Superior Court (1993) 21 CA 4th 548)
  • Pre trial matters
    • Joinder of corporation when spouse is minority shareholder (Schnabel v. Superior Court (1993) 21 CA 4th 548)
    • Consolidation of Motion to set side and civil action for fraud (IRMO McNeil (1984) 160 CA 3d 548)
  • Paternity/annulments/putative spouses/Marvin actions
    • Presumed father
    • Trial Court attorney fee award on appeal (Sherry H. v. Thomas B. (1988) 203 CA 3d 1500)
    • Grounds for annulment (IRMO Johnston (1993) 18 CA 4th 499)
  • Family Law Appellate Matters
    • Pre appeal review and analysis
    • Post trial dispute resolution
    • Judgment presumed correct without statement of decision (IRMO Ditto (1988) 206 CA 3d 643)
    • Sanctions for frivolous appeal (IRMO Schnabel (1994) 30 CA4th 747)
    • Ability to reweigh evidence (IRMO Schnabel (1994) 30 CA4th 747)
  • Family and Probate Codes issues
    • Children of a decedent’s predeceased spouse claimed an interest in his estate, alleging as step children they were the closest heirs. (Estate of Claffey (1989) 209 CA 3d 254)
    • Disputes between prior and widowed spouses
      • Former spouse’s right as designated beneficiary to proceeds from decedent’s employment savings plan. (Snyder v. Snyder (1987) 197 CA 3d 6)
      • Terminable interest rule inapt to nonrestrictive beneficiary choice private pension; community property interest in life insurance policy partially funded with community property (Bowman v. Bowman (1985) 171 CA 3d 148)
    • Former spouses' rights to undivided life insurance proceeds as designated beneficiaries
    • Creditor claim against son of decedent’s mother’s estate and claim of fraudulent conveyance of joint tenancy conveyance (Estate of Baumann (1988) 201 CA 3d 927)
    • Determination of son’s heir ship in birth father’s intestate estate where step father previously adopted son and out of state court affirmed its validity (Estate of Hart (1984) 165 CA 3d 392
    • Action between decedent’s mother and widow over joint tenancy family residence (Byrd v. Blanton (1983) 149 CA 3d 987)
    • Decedent’s business creditor sought widow’s personal liability for estate’s insolvency (Estate of Davis (1990) 219 CA 3d 663)
  • Family Law Malpractice
    • Record did not support a finding the attorney was negligent in his trial preparation and the evidence failed to establish proximate cause or damages (Sukoff v. Lemkin (1988) 202 CA 3d 740)

Bar Associations, Affiliates and Other Professional and Pro Bono Groups

  • Recipient of the Project Youth OCBF Volunteer Excellence Award, Project Youth Orange County Bar Foundation, 2019
  • Named one of Loyola Law School's 50 Inspirational Alumni, 2014
  • First recipient of Justice David G. Sills Award for Appellate Excellence, Orange County Bar Association Appellate Law Section, 2011
  • Robert Samuel Barnes Award, Orange County Bar Foundation, 2006
  • Marcus Kaugman Jurisprudence Award, Anti-Defamation League, 2004
  • Founder and Chair, Sonenshine Pro Bono Reception, 1995-present
  • Franklin G. West Lifetime Achievement Award, Orange County Bar Association, 1995


  • Member: International Women's Forum/The Trusteeship, The Anti-Defamation League of Orange County and Long Beach's Regional Board
  • Past Member: The Orange County Performing Arts Center Board of Directors
  • Speaker for educational, legal, and business groups, as well as a contributing author on topics relating to law, business, and finance

Family Law

  • Service to Family Law Award, American Bar Association Family Law Section, 1993
  • Family Law Person of the Year, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 1993
  • Jurist of the Year, State Bar of California Family Law Section, 1991


  • Principal in Sonenshine Enterprises since 2004. In that capacity, she has invested in a number of women-led companies, and served as a trusted advisor to numerous female entrepreneurs
  • Co-Founder and Executive Managing Director, EquiCo (subsequently RSM EquiCo after being acquired by H&R Block in 2001), now known as McGladrey Capital Markets, 1999-2004
  • Associate Justice, California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, 1982-1999
  • Judge, Orange County Superior Court, 1981-1982 (Presiding Judge, Family Law Panel)
  • Private law practice, Newport Beach, 1971-1981
  • J.D., Loyola School of Law, 1970 (St. Thomas More Honor Society)
  • B.A., Economics, University of California, Los Angeles, 1967

Counsel Comments

    • "Sheila Sonenshine is the absolute best settlement officer I have ever seen. She is knowledgeable and always fully prepared. Moreover she is practical and understands the goal of dispute resolution is to get all parties to believe they have made the best overall decision they can make, taking possible outcomes into account." 

      - Appellate Counsel
    • “Justice Sonenshine’s tenacity, business background, and common sense hands-on approach make her stand out among neutrals.” 

      - Legal strategist and former Sr. Vice President and General Counsel of one of the largest private real estate and development companies in the United States
    • "Justice Sonenshine has the experience, objectivity, and common sense to cut to the heart of an employment dispute and get the parties there with her."
    • "She put the lawyers, and the parties, in their place, and with tenacity, unmatched knowledge of the law and a presence that can only be described as breathtaking, gave us hope that we could actually settle a case where the parties could not have been further apart. Without her tireless assistance, exceptional mediation skills and unbridled commitment, there is no way this case could have settled."



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