Family Law Unpublished Decisions from Division 2 -June 16, 2015

In follow-up to yesterday’s post about Division I unpublished family law cases, here are some updates from Division 2 that came down today.

 

In Re The Marriage Of Carrasco, Docket No. 45767-9; Opinion Author Worswick; Concurring: Johanson and Melnick; Attorney for Apellant/Cross-Respondent Josephine C Townsend; Attorneys for Respondent/Cross-Appellant Carolyn Marie Drew and Patricia S. Novotny

Basics of decision: Husband appealed the trial court’s decision regarding maintenance (a/k/a spousal support/alimony) and division of property. He argued that the trial court failed to impute income to his ex-wife for purposes of calculating spousal maintenacne and child support, the decision to award “supplemental” maintenance; securing payments via life insurance policy, ordering Husband to pay all expenses for his adult daughter’s eating disorder treatment, and using the trial date to calculate Wife’s share of the Husband’s retirement account. The court rejected Husband’s claims, affirmed the trial court’s decision, and granted Wife Attorney’s fees.

Basic Facts: 19 year marriage, married while Husband was in school, by the time of divorce, Husband was employed earning roughly $16,210 in gross monthly income. Shortly after marriage, Wife quit her job to raise the couple’s first of three children. From 1994 to 2012 the couple lived off of Husband’s student loans, grants, stipends, and financial aid. Couple acquired few assets. Owned one home in Vancouver, Washington.

Court provided for spousal maintenance of $5,500 per month for a total of nine years, a five year base, plus an additional four years to allow Wife the time to Wife to seek higher education. Husband ordered to have life insurance in Wife’s name equivalent to amounts owed for maintenance. Property divided as follows: Half of Husband’s retirement account to each spouse as separate property; house to Husband with half of the equity to Tarantino. (Parenting plan and child support also entered, but do not appear to be in dispute, except for the imputation of income issue).

Husband had also stipulated in trial that he was going to pay for their adult daughters treatments connected to her eating disorder and then sought not to pay it.

On interesting point of the appeal is that Husband sought to assign error to findings of fact, but did not argue the findings lacked substantial evidence so they are considered verities on appeal.

Division II rejected the claim that income needs to be imputed for maintenance, noting that the only limitation on the amount and duration of maintenance under RCW 26.09.090 is that, in light of the relevant factors, the award must be just. Husband failed to carry his burden of showing that the trial court abused its discretion by ordering an unjust maintenance award.

Division II rejected the argument that, for child support purposes, Wife should have been found to be voluntarily unemployed and her income should have been imputed to minimum wage. The trial court made findings that Wife had attempted to rejoin the workforce, that she was volunteering to gain experience, and that she was attempting to learn a new skill (medical billing). Division II said this provided tenable grounds for the trial court’s ruling that Wife was not intentionally unemployed. Thus, the trial court did not err by not imputing income to Wife for purposes of calculating child support.

The trial court awarded Wife maintenance for nine years, compensating wife for the unrealized benefits of Husband’s education. Husband argued that there was no proof that Wife supported him through medical school, so she should not be compensated and that maintenance should be limited to the number or years Wife needs to get an education. Division II rejected this argument noting that where there are unrealized education benefits a trial court must consider four factors (1) the amount of community funds expended for educational costs, the income the community would have earned had the student spouse worked rather than gone to school, (3) the nonstudent spouse’s lost educational or career opportunities given up due to the student spouse’s education, and (4) each spouse’s future earnings prospects. The court noted that the law does not require reimbursement for past separate expenditures but to reimburse the supporting spouse for expected future benefits from the educated spouse’s increased earning potential that had not yet come to fruition at dissolution. Division II also reiterated that there is no rigid formula for awarding maintenance.

Division II also rejected the argument that the trial court abused its discretion in requiring Husband to maintain a life insurance policy to cover maintenance payments to Wife. Husband’s arguments were (1) if he died and wife got a lump sum, she could invest it the money and the resulting interest would create a windfall, and (2) wife wouldn’t owe taxes on life insurance policy but she owes taxes on her monthly spousal maintenance payments, creating a windfall due related to the lack of taxation. The court rejected this stating that there is no requirement that a property division be mathematically precise – it must be just and equitable. Husband failed to show the trial court manifestly abused its discretion or created an unjust and inequitable result.

Division II rejected Husband’s argument that he intended a cap of approximately $20,000 on his daughter’s medical treatment. Division II noted the stipulation was made on the record in open court and that a stipulation made in open court is a binding contract. The trial court found that the parties agreed to Husband paying all expenses related to daughter’s eating disorder. The transcript clearly says “all treatment” without a cap. Division II also notes that Husband’s argument against the agreement is that Wife may some day seek to enforce the agreement in an absurd manner and the court says this claim is not ripe because there is no allegation that she is currently seeking to enforce it in an absurd manner. In the future, the context rule of contracts will permit a court to interpret the stipulation in a reasonable manner consistent with Husbands intent.

Division II rejected the argument that Wife had no right to retirement benefits after the separation – noting again that the court may divide up all property, community or separate, as shall appear just and equitable. The court noted that the characterization of property as community or separate does not control its distribution and a court must consider all relevant factors and has the discretion to dispose of separate and community property so long as it is just and equitable. Husband failed to prove that the trial court manifestly abused its discretion by using the trial date instead of separation date and notes that Husband did not argue that the award was not just or equitable.

Wife filed an affidavit of financial need at least 10 days before oral argument and finding that Wife had a financial need, the court granted her attorney fees on appeal in amount to be determined by the court’s commissioner.

In the Marriage of Allen, Docket No. 31619-0; Opinion Author: Fearing; Concurrence: Brown and Siddoway; Attorney for Appellant: Jeffrey Ray Allen   (Appearing Pro Se); Attorney for Respondent: Catherine Marie Allen   (Appearing Pro Se) and Kacie L Maggard, Yakima County Prosecutor’s Office

Father appealed an order increasing his child support obligation based upon (1) Commissioner should have recused himself because the commissioner previously represented Jeffrey against his former wife; (2) Court erred in denying request for change of venue; and (3) Court denied Father due process when another commissioner changed his child support obligation because he never received information about Mother’s finances. All of the Father’s arguments were rejected and the order modifying Father’s child support order were affirmed.

The Mother was receiving public benefits and the State of Washington moved in Grant County Superior Court, where the order was originally entered for an increase to the Father’s obligation. After divorce, Mother moved to Everett, Snohomish County, and father moved to Tacoma, Pierce County. Father moved to change venue to Snohomish County. Wife requested it remain in Grant County alleging the father was seeking to avoid modification.

The Court ordered a change of venue unless the State objected and the state objected to a change of venue on the ground that transferring venue would delay the motion to increase child support. The Motion to change venue was denied and the hearing was rescheduled. Father sought reconsideration, but mislabeled his motion for reconsideration causing confusion. At this time Father aslo argued the Commissioner should have recused himself since he used to be Father’s attorney. Father’s request for reconsideration was rejected as untimely.

Division III noted that Father’s brief contained no citation to the record and egregiously violated RAP 10.3 and 10.4 and thus, Father’s assigned errors are treated without merit. Division III noted that since Father did not raise the issue of disqualification until after the commissioner denied Father’s motion to change venue and so the issue was waived for assignment of error.

Division III noted that RCW 26.09.280 allows for a child support modification to proceed in the court in which the final order, judgement, or decree was entered, and so it was proper to be filed in Grant County. The Commissioner’s reliance upon the objection of the state and to avoid further delay modifying child support order was a validly articulated reason for the decision not to change venue and thus did not abuse discretion.

Father also made the claim that the state had the responsibility to provide proof of personal service or certificate of mailing. Division III said the Civil Rules allow for proof to be provided by a declaration of service and so Due Process was not denied to Father.

Attorney Fees – a portion of an opening brief must be devoted to fees or expenses under RAP 18.1(b). Argument and citation to authority are required under the rule to advise the court of the appropriate grounds for an award of attorney fees as costs. Both parties failed to devote a section of their briefs to their requests for attorney’s fees, therefor both requests were denied, plus they were pro se so likely incurred no fees.

 

Family Law Unpublished Decisions from Division 1 -June 15, 2015

There have not been many published family law cases of late. I thought since there were a couple of unpublished decisions, I would mention them, even though they do not seem to offer much in terms of legal interpretations, but sometimes it’s interesting to see what’s happening in other family law cases.

In Re Marriage Of: Halligan,, App., Docket No. 71391-4; Opinion Author: Linda Lau; Concurring; Dwyer and Shindler; Counsel for Appellant John Halligan (Pro Se); Counsel for Respondent Micheal Schein

Brief Facts: Couple married 9/1995 and separated 6/2012. One child born in 2011. Husband gross income ~$13,000; W gross income ~$3,200. Total assets about $564k distributed 60% to Wife and 40% to Husband. For a seventeen year marriage, wife was awarded five years of maintenance at $3,500. There was also a child support award amount, but the amount was unclear (at one point it looked as if the $3,500 may have been maintenance and child support, but I think it was on top of the $3,500 in maintenance).

Issue 1: Retirement Benefits: The parties used Steven Kessler, whom the court described as “an experienced certified public accountant” to calculate the value of their retirement plans. Husband did not challenge the valuation of one of the retirement pensions during the expert’s testimony, but did on his direct testimony. The admission of the report without objection and the lack of questioning the expert on this point were significant factors and the court felt his opinion was largely unchallenged factored heavily into the court’s decisions as there was nothing in the record to indicate that the trial court’s decision to rely on Kessler’s opinion was unreasonable or an abuse of discretion.

Issue 2: Attorney’s Fees: Husband also challenge the award of attorney’s fees to Wife at the trial level. When a party seeks to challenge the attorney’s fees, they must establish that “the court used its discretion in an untenable or manifestly unreasonable manner.” Wife had incurred attorneys fees of $60,621 and the court awarded $18,000 in attorney’s fees. Division 1 declined to overturn the court’s award of attorney’s fees.

Issue 3: Exclusion of Expert Witness: Husband attempted to provide the testimony and report of Neil Bennett, a vocation counselor. He did not disclose it in a timely manner and the court sanctioned Husband by excluding the witness. Here Division I notes that in Husband’s appeal he made factual assertions not supported by the record in violation of RAP 10.3(a)(6). Division I noted that when a trial court imposes a severe sanction, such as witness exclusion, the record must clearly demonstrate that the court considered (1) whether the violation was willful or deliberate; (2) whether the violation substantially prejudiced the opponent’s ability to prepare for trial; and (3) whether a lesser sanction would probably suffice. Division I noted that the trial court considered all three factors on the record and there is no evidence of abuse of discretion in the exclusion of the testimony.

An notes is that the trial court rejected the claim that a continuance automatically extended all discovery deadlines without entry of a new case scheduling order or the court’s approval.

Issue 4: Post-Separation Payments to Fidelity 401(k): The post-separation payments to the 401(k) were connected to a loan from the 401(k) to buy the property. The trial court noted this and found no need to provide credit for payment to a debt assigned under temporary orders. Division I found no abuse of discretion and also noted that mischaracterization of property is not grounds for setting aside the trial court’s property distribution if the division of the property is fair and equitable and that this post-separation payment was not crucial to the court’s decision.

Issue 5: Federal Tax Exemption: Husband made an argument that there was a scrivener’s error in allocating the tax exemption to the Wife instead of alternating, but the record indicates that the tax exemptions were awarded in connection with the amount of child support payments.

issue 6: Verification of Work-Related Daycare Expenses: Husband wanted some sort of proof for work-related daycare expenses, but he failed to provide any meaningful legal argument or citation to relevant authority and the court declined to consider his argument.

Attorney’s Fees on Appeal: Despite an overall tone of the opinion that sounded like there were at least some points the court thought were without merit, the court did not award attorney’s fees on appeal.

 

In Re The Marriage Of: Robin Maelee Hitz, Res. And Eric James Hitz, App.; Docket No. 71413-9; Opinion Author: Spearman, Concurring: Applewick & Dwyer; Counsel for Appellant: T Reinhard G ‘ron’ Wolff;  Counsel for Respondent: Robin Maelee Hitz   (Appearing Pro Se). 

Husband appeals, claiming that the trial court “lost jurisdiction” (Division I’s quote) ove the case. Division I notes Husband misrepresents relevant facts and that no authority supports is claim that the dissolution became a new proceeding for purposes of the statutory entitlement to a change of a judge when the bankruptcy court lifted a stay and allowed the dissolution to proceed.

Brief Facts: Husband and Wife owned a business together. The judge disclosed a relationship owned by his family and the bank and the parties waived any potential conflict. There was a nine-day trial. The decree assigned Wife the responsibility of liquidating the community assets as paying debts owed. Husband didn’t cooperate and his parents filed a lawsuit against the parties in 2012 claiming an unsecured promissory note (the judge disqualified itself from this case, but noted he thought it had been unnecessary). In April 2012, funds were ordered to be divided between the bank, the parents pursuant to their lawsuit and the parties. Husband filed motions for recusal without noting his motions for hearing. At some point Husband also filed for bankruptcy. After a stay lifted pursuant to the bankruptcy filing, the court denied the motion for recusal, awarded Wife $18,000 in attorney fees and entered a restraining order against Husband. The court also denied Husband’s motion for reconsideration an imposed sanctions against Husband of $5,000 under CR 11.

Division I Discussion: Division I notes that appellant’s brief must contain an argument with legal authority and references to the relevant part of the orders and that Husband’s legal arguments are based on assertions of fact largely unsupported by any reference to the records and that some citations are inaccurate or contradicted by the record.

Recusal – Division I notes that Husband’s argument is factually incorrect as the judge recused himself in a different case and expressly declined to recuse himself in this case. The affidavit of prejudice was also untimely and Husband’s argument that the bankruptcy court granting relief from the automatic stay did not somehow create a new action. It was not a modification, but a continuation of the original issue.

Attorney’s Fees – Husband’s request for attorney’s fees was denied. The court did find that appeal was frivolous, but did not impose additional sanctions. The court did award attorney’s fees for wife.

 

Nathan Brown, Iii, Appellant V. Mi K. Brown, Respondent, Docket No. 71398-1, Opinion Author: Dwyer; Concurring: Spearmand and Appelwick; Attorney for Appellant: Nathan Brown III   (Appearing Pro Se); Attorney for Respondent: Joseph Orry-leroy Baker  

Father’s petition for a parenting plan modification was dismissed and sanctions were imposed for his failure to comply with the court’s scheduling order. Court affirmed and found his appeal frivolous and awarded fees to Mother.

Basic Facts: Original parenting plan provided three sons reside a majority of time with Mother. Father sought to modify. A superior court commissioner entered orders finding adequate cause for a trial and appointed a GAL. After the GAL filed her report Father filed a motion for a temporary order adopting his proposed parenting plan and “several provisions of the GAL report” and terminating child support based on the age of the oldest child and requesting a change of residence for the other two children. The commissioner denied the request for change in the residential schedule pending trial and stated that no child support adjustment was properly before the court. Over the next couple of months Father did not file pleadings required by the case schedule or the pretrial conference order, including no witness or exhibit list, no financial declaration, and no trial brief. Mother filed a motion to dismiss the petition with prejudice and terms based on Father’s file to comply with the case schedule. The court found there was “absolute noncompliance” with court orders and nothing would suggest mitigating circumstances and awarded terms in the amount of 75% of Mother’s attorney fees.

Division I Discussion: While dismissal is disfavored it is justified when a party willfully and deliberately disregards reasonable court orders, resulting in prejudice to the other party, and impairing the efficient administration of justice under CR 41(b). Disregard of a court order without reasonable excuse or justification is deemed willful.

Division I rejects the following claims by Father:

1 – Commissioner’s temporary order resolved issues making trial unnecessary (new issue on appeal). The temporary order was only temporary pending trial – argument rejected.

2 – The “or” was disjunctive and therefore terms and sanctions should not have been awarded. Plain language is clear that this is not what the statute intends- argument rejected.

3- The trial court erred in placing the sanctions on Father instead of Father’s attorney. Statute is clear sanctions can be on individual or attorney – argument rejected.

4- Mother was not prejudiced and that Mother failed to sufficiently mitigate her prejudice. Mother’s attorney had to prepare and also attempted to follow-up with Father’s attorney to make sure deadlines were met – argument rejected.

5- Father was not sufficiently warned about sanctions (new issues on appeal). Terms are clear under KCLCR 4(g)(4), plus Mother’s attorney had numerous calls, e-mails and letters to Father’s counsel regarding failure to comply with case schedule – argument rejected.

Division I granted Mother’s request for fees on appeal. The court stated that Father’s appeal presented no debatable issues and mother entitled to an award of fees and costs on appeal.

Family Law – Post-Secondary Support Case

Anne Sprute (Bradley), Respondent V. Eric Bradley, Appellant, 45608-7, Division II, March 10, 2015 (Published in Part)

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Post-secondary Support:

Couple divorced in 2003 and amended their child support order in 2011 to read  reserved post-secondary support.

Holdings:

(1) Sprute was not required to file her child support worksheets with her request for postsecondary educational support in order to timely request such support;

(2) Sprute’s GI bill benefits could only be applied to reduce her own postsecondary educational obligations under 38 USC § 3319(f)(3)

(3) the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to cap postsecondary educational support at the amount charged by UW, and

(4) the trial court erred by using the one-child column to calculate child support for the parties’ minor child because the parties were supporting two children.

 

May 2013, Sprute filed a petition to amend child support, requesting postsecondary educational support for the oldest child.  The initial petition did not include proposed child support worksheets and the court found rejected Bradley’s claim that since the child had graduated by the time the worksheets were filed that the petition for postsecondary support was untimely.

 

Court’s Analysis

(1) Worksheets do not need to be filed to in order to preserve filing date

Statute at issue – RCW 26.09. 175 ( 1), which states that a proceeding for the modification of a child support order ” shall commence with the filing of a petition and worksheets.”

Finding- Sprute exercised her right to request postsecondary educational support by filing her petition to modify for two reasons: language in CSO was that party had to exercise a right, not commence a proceeding and filing a petition to modify exercises that right and a petition to modify without worksheets is sufficient. (2) Following In re Marriage of Pollard, 99 Wn. App. 48, 55-56 (2000), effective date is the date filed, even if worksheets not filed for a year.

 

(2) Cannot Provide a Credit for Post 9/11 GI Bill Benefits 

Overall question – is providing a credit for the GI Bill an impermissible division of benefits under 38 U.S.S § 3319(f)(3)?

The Post 9/11 GI Bill allows a recipient to transfer a certain number of months to her children and it’s not allowed to be considered an asset in marital distribution. Court distinguishes from In re Marriage of Boisn, 87 Wn. App. 912, 943 .2d 682 (1997), which held that if a third party paid, then a parent wasn’t required to reimburse the other parent. Here the court found that there was no “third party” paying for college because the GI Bill belongs to Sprute.

 

(3) No Cap for Postsecondary Education Expenses

The court noted that Bradley did not reference RCW 26.19.009(2) and the non-exhaustive factors. Instead, Bradley argues that it is not fair to make him pay for the most expensive college alternative, and that he does not have sufficient income to pay the award. The court said that the parents’ current and future resources is only one of several factors the trial court can consider.

Bradley did cite In re Marriage of Shellenberger, 80 Wn. App. 71, 906 P.2d 968 (1995) in support for the argument he cannot afford to pay the award. The court found that Bradley produced no evidence that paying the child’s postsecondary support would burden him to the point of filing for bankruptcy.

The court also rejects Bradley’s argument that postsecondary educational support generally must be limited to the cost of public school based on Shellenberger and In re Marriage of Sterns, 57 Wn. App. 707, 789 P.2d 807 (1990).  In this case, the court found that the trial court made specific findings justifying Joshua’s selection of an out-of-state school, that the parties had a history of sending their children to private schools.

(4) Must use the column for support based on the total number of children receiving support. 

The court held that post-secondary support is support and so the support for the minor child should be reduced by using the column for the number of children for whom support is owed, in this case two children. The Court cites In re Marriage of Daubert, 124 Wn. App. 483, 502-03, 99 P. 3d 401 (2004) and In re Marriage of McCausland, 159 Wn.2d 607, 152 P.3d 1013 (2103).

 

The rest of the opinion was unpublished, but they are interesting issues, so I include a summary of those issues as well.

  1. Discovery Issues – There was a concern about the completeness of the discovery by Sprute. The court found no discovery abuse, but did order certain additional answers and documents. The standard on review is abuse of discretion, decision is based on untenable grounds. In this case the documents provided could answer the questions for which Bradley said he needed additional documents. There was also a question of whether the documents requested could lead to the discovery of admissible evidence regarding Sprute’s net income.

 

  1. 45 Percent Cap on Child Support. RCW 26.19.065(1) provides that child support should be capped at 45% of a parent’s income. Bradley attempted to raise this issue on appeal, but he did not bring and the court declined to address this argument on appeal.

 

  1. Attorney Fees. Court declines both parties’ requests for attorney’s fees. Sprute because RAP 18.1 does not provide an independent basis for the award of fees. Bradley failed to request attorney’s fees in his opening brief, as required by RAP 18.1(b).

 

That concludes the summary of the case. There are several issues at play in this case that would make for an interesting appeal to the State Supreme Court. The issue of post-secondary support is a particularly challenging issue. The cost of a college education has sky-rocketed. With that, the amount that parties end up paying for post-secondary can surpass how much they paid when the child was dependent. It seems to me that there should be a cap on post-secondary support, at minimum the 45% cap should apply, but perhaps no parent should ever pay more post-secondary support than they would pay for a dependent child. Although perhaps this cap has to be created by the legislature.

Joint Custody & Child Support

One of the things that I have seen in the family law context is a parent who has more wealth seeking to have equal/joint custody (called residential time in Washington) in order to reduce the amount they pay in child support. While there are times where a parent really wants equal time with their child, all to often it seems to be solely a ploy for reducing the child support obligation. After orders are entered, the child ends up spending a significant amount of time with the other parent, but the parent with the additional residential time is not receiving additional child support for the additional expense. It has made me suspicious of joint custody arrangements and hopeful that courts will be cautious in granting significant deviations based on shared custody, especially because a parenting plan is difficult to modify, so even if a parent tried to modify based on the practice of not exercising joint custody, it would be difficult (compounded by the probability that as soon as the parent sought to modify, the other parent would then try to exercise joint custody and seek to block the modification).

A recent Division III case that is unpublished (meaning it is not meant to be used as precedence/relied upon for future decisions), addressed the issue of deviating for child support based on equal custody. In In re Marriage of Langford, the trial court did not grant a deviation for additional residential time. The Husband appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in not granting the deviation for residential time. The appellate court disagreed and upheld the trial court’s order.

The Appellate Court noted that the statue allows that a court may deviate from the standard calculation for the purpose of recognizing increased expenses of the obligor parent when residential time is shared, BUT this deviation cannot leave insufficient funds in the household receiving the support to meet the basic needs of the child.

The attorney for Father argued that court should apply the Arvey formula. The Arvey formula is a formula that is used when parents have split custody (two children and one child resides with each parent). The Court noted that the Washington State Supreme Court has rejected the use of the Arvey formula for equal residential place in shared custody placement in State ex reI. M.M.G. v. Graham, 159 Wn.2d 623,632,152 P.3d 1005 (2007). In that case, the court found that the statute gives trial courts discretion to deviate from the standard calculation and a new formula is not necessary and in fact, thwarts the legislature’s directive that courts consider the actual increase and decrease in expenses brought about by an obligor parent having a significant amount of residential time. Citing: In re Marriage of Schnurman, 178 Wn. App. 634, 636,316 P.3d 514 (2013), review denied, 180 Wn.2d 1010 (2014) and State ex reI. MMG. v. Graham, 123 Wn. App. 931, 939, 99 P.3d 1248 (2004), a.ff’d in part, rev’d in part on other grounds, 159 Wn.2d 623, 152 P.3d 1005, abrogated on other grounds by In re Marriage of McCausland, 159 Wn.2d 607, 152 P.3d 1013 (2007).

The dissenting judge in this case had an interesting point. He argued that historically, the obligor parent is based on whom the child(ren) reside the majority of time and that the majority’s reasoning made the obligor parent, the parent who had the greater income. I disagree with his argument (the majority did not address his argument), because in this case, the parents had equal time. In a situation like this income is essentially the tie-breaker in determining who the obligor parent is and there is no danger that a parent who has the children 70% of the time will suddenly become obligated to pay child support because of a greater income.