How do the courts determine what an equitable distribution of property between divorcing spouses is?
Property that was the sole and separate property of each party or was given to them during the marriage as sole and separate property is assigned to that party and all other property accumulated during the marriage is equitably distributed. (D.C. Code § 16-910)
Property that has not been otherwise addressed by a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement or the decree separating the parties is distributed according to the list of 12 factors set out in D.C. Code § 16-910(b). The factors include: the duration of the marriage; various characteristics of the parties such as age, health, occupation, income amount and source; custodial arrangements regarding minor children; obligations from prior relationships or to other children; contributions as homemakers; contributions to the other party in terms of education; changes in income as a result of marriage; contributions to, or dissipation of, assets; the effects of taxation; and the circumstances of estrangement. (D.C. Code § 16-910)
The factors in D.C. Code § 16-910(b) are not a limitation on a judge's broad discretion in the equitable allocation of property, but merely an enumeration of several non-exclusive factors representing a codification of guidelines enunciated in prior caselaw. (Turpin v. Turpin, 403 A.2d 1144 (D.C. 1979))
The trial court has broad discretion in distributing marital property. The trial court's findings will not be disturbed if it considers all relevant factors listed in D.C. Code § 16-910(b). (Lewis v. Lewis, 708 A.2d 249 (D.C. 1998))
There is no presumption of an equal (as opposed to equitable) distribution of property; a court must divide the property in a manner that is equitable, reasonable, and just, after considering all the relevant factors. (Burwell v. Burwell, 700 A.2d 219 (D.C. 1997))
Assets should be considered in the equitable distribution of property regardless of whether the assets are marital property or not. Equity of the parties in a particular piece of property should likewise be considered. (Lewis v. Lewis, 708 A.2d 249 (D.C. 1998))
Even when one spouse is primarily financially responsible for marital property, the other spouse's contribution to the property and to the marital home can be taken into account in an equitable distribution. (Sudderth v. Sudderth, 984 A.2d 1262 (D.C. 2009))
An equitable distribution of property must take into account the dissipation of marital property accumulated during the marriage. Dissipation under D.C. Code § 16-910 can be shown by unrebutted prima facie evidence that a spouse used marital property for their own personal benefit at a time when the marriage was irreconcilably breaking down. If dissipation occurred, the court must distribute the property in question without regard to whether it still exists. (Herron v. Johnson, 714 A.2d 783 (D.C. 1998))
D.C. Code § 16-910 governs the assignment and equitable distribution of property in the District of Columbia. Property that was the sole and separate property of each party or was given to them during the marriage as sole and separate property is assigned to that party and all other property accumulated during the marriage is equitably distributed. Property that has not been otherwise addressed by a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement or the decree separating the parties is distributed according to a list of 12 factors and circumstances. These factors include: the duration of the marriage; various characteristics of the parties such as age, health, occupation, income amount and source; custodial arrangements regarding minor children; obligations from prior relationships or to other children; contributions as homemakers; contributions to the other party in terms of education; changes in income as a result of marriage; contributions to, or dissipation of, assets; the effects of taxation; and the circumstances of estrangement. This is not an exclusive list:
Upon entry of a final decree of legal separation, annulment, or divorce, or upon the termination of a domestic partnership pursuant to §32-702(d) or §16-904(e) and the filing of a petition for relief available under this section, in the absence of a valid antenuptial or postnuptial agreement resolving all issues related to the property of the parties, the court shall:
(a) assign to each party his or her sole and separate property acquired prior to the marriage or domestic partnership, and his or her sole and separate property acquired during the marriage or domestic partnership by gift, bequest, devise, or descent, and any increase thereof, or property acquired in exchange therefor; and
(b) value and distribute all other property and debt accumulated during the marriage or domestic partnership that has not been addressed in a valid antenuptial or postnuptial agreement or a decree of legal separation, regardless of whether title is held individually or by the parties in a form of joint tenancy or tenancy by the entireties, in a manner that is equitable, just, and reasonable, after considering all relevant factors, including, but not limited to:
(1) the duration of the marriage or domestic partnership;
(2) the age, health, occupation, amount, and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, assets, debts, and needs of each of the parties;
(3) provisions for the custody of minor children;
(4) whether the distribution is in lieu of or in addition to alimony;
(5) each party's obligation from a prior marriage, a prior domestic partnership, or for other children;
(6) the opportunity of each party for future acquisition of assets and income;
(7) each party's contribution as a homemaker or otherwise to the family unit;
(8) each party's contribution to the education of the other party which enhanced the other party's earning ability;
(9) each party's increase or decrease in income as a result of the marriage, the domestic partnership, or duties of homemaking and child care;
(10) each party's contribution to the acquisition, preservation, appreciation, dissipation, or depreciation in value of the assets which are subject to distribution, the taxability of these assets, and whether the asset was acquired or the debt incurred after separation;
(11) the effects of taxation on the value of the assets subject to distribution; and
(12) the circumstances which contributed to the estrangement of the parties.
(c) The Court is not required to value a pension or annuity if it enters an order distributing future periodic payments.
In Turpin v. Turpin, 403 A.2d 1144 (D.C. 1979), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals explained that the factors in D.C. Code § 16-910(b) are not a limitation on a judge's broad discretion in the equitable allocation of property, but merely an enumeration of several non-exclusive factors representing a codification of guidelines enunciated in prior caselaw (at 1146-1147):
As is clear from the language of subsection (a), a threshold requirement for exception of property is that the property be the "sole and separate" property of one spouse. If and when the property is put in joint names — for whatever reason — then it is no longer exempted under subsection (a) but rather falls within subsection (b), under which the trial court is to determine how the property is to be distributed. Furthermore, the judge's broad discretion in allocating this property is unaffected by subsection (b). In its recent enactment the legislature has merely enumerated several nonexclusive factors that the trial court is to consider in the exercise of its discretion. These factors are largely a codification of the guidelines enunciated in the cases which construed the bounds of the trial court's authority under the old § 16-910. Compare D.C.Code 1978 Supp., § 16-910(b), with
Campbell v. Campbell, supra, at 279; Chamberlain v. Chamberlain, supra, at 532; Lundregan Lundregan, supra, at 792. See also Quarles v. Quarles, 86 U.S.App.D.C. 41, 42, 179 F.2d 57, 58 (1949). Thus, the trial court's discretion under the new statute is at least as broad as it was under the old.
In Lewis v. Lewis, 708 A.2d 249 (D.C. 1998) ("Lewis"), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that an equitable distribution requires a court to take into account all the relevant factors under D.C. Code § 16-910 in assessing the totality of the circumstances. A failure to do this constitutes an abuse of discretion (at 254):
The distribution of marital property in a divorce proceeding is governed by D.C.Code § 16-910, which provides that all property acquired during the marriage that does not qualify as sole and separate property of the parties must be distributed
in a manner that is equitable, just and reasonable, after considering all relevant factors....
D.C.Code § 16-910(b). The trial court has broad discretion in distributing marital property. Dews v. Dews, 632 A.2d 1160, 1164 (D.C.1993). The trial court's findings will not be disturbed if it considers all relevant factors listed in § 16-910. Id. (citations omitted). The factors will vary from case to case, therefore, this court will need only to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in assessing the "`totality of circumstances' and its resultant order." Id. (citations omitted). "If the trial court's findings of fact, conclusions of law and judgment, taken together ... present an integrated, internally consistent and readily understood whole," its decision will not be disturbed on appeal. Bowser v. Bowser, 515 A.2d 1128, 1130 (D.C.1986).
In Lewis, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals considered a trial court's distribution of a marital home. The trial court gave all of the marital home to the wife. In arriving at that distribution, it had excluded from consideration evidence regarding assets of the wife that the trial court had determined to be non-marital property. The trial court also did not consider the equity of the parties in the marital home in determining the distribution. The Court of Appeals found the failure to take these factors into consideration to be an abuse of discretion, and held that assets should be considered in the equitable distribution of property regardless of whether they are marital property or not (at 254):
Mr. Lewis contends that the trial court failed to consider, in assigning the marital home solely to Mrs. Lewis, the full extent of her assets, including the settlement proceeds, the value of the property and their full equity in it, or his full contribution to it, including the use of his veteran's benefits to purchase it. Each of the parties testified that the property was valued at a minimum of $150,000. The trial court did not use this figure to determine the parties' equity in the home, but rather the much lower purchase price. The parties' equity in the home is an important factor for consideration in determining distribution of the marital abode. The trial court restricted the cross-examination of Mrs. Lewis with respect to her assets, specifically the settlement proceeds. It took the view that having already ruled that the settlement proceeds of the wrongful death and survival action are non-marital property, it was inappropriate to inquire about it because it was irrelevant in determining the distribution of the other marital property. However, D.C.Code § 16-910(b) requires the court to consider, in making an equitable distribution of marital assets, all relevant factors, including the assets of each party, without regard to their source. The failure to take into account these two major factors, i.e., the parties' equity in the home and a major asset of one spouse, results in an abuse of discretion. Therefore, this aspect of the decree must be remanded for further consideration.
In Burwell v. Burwell, 700 A.2d 219 (D.C. 1997) ("Burwell"), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that there is no presumption of an equal (as opposed to equitable) distribution of property; a court must divide the property in a manner that is equitable, reasonable, and just, after considering all the relevant factors (at 223-224):
A trial court undoubtedly has "broad discretion" to order a distribution of marital property. See, e.g., Pimble v. Pimble, 521 A.2d 1173, 1174 (D.C.1987) (per curiam). The divorce law contains no presumption in favor of an equal distribution of property; instead, it requires the court to divide the marital property "in a manner that is equitable, just and reasonable," after considering "all relevant factors including, but not limited to," those detailed in the margin.6 D.C.Code § 16-910(b) (1997 Repl.). If the trial court fails to consider all the relevant factors, we cannot determine whether the court properly exercised its discretion and achieved an equitable result. See, e.g., Pimble, 521 A.2d at 1174-75. We have, therefore, repeatedly reversed divorce decrees ordering
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distribution of marital property where, as here, the inadequate findings on material issues precludes meaningful appellate review. See, e.g., Joel v. Joel, 559 A.2d 769, 772-73 (D.C.1989); Pimble, 521 A.2d at 1174-75; Bowser v. Bowser, 515 A.2d 1128, 1130-33 (D.C.1986); Leftwich v. Leftwich, 442 A.2d 139, 143 (D.C.1982).
In Burwell, the facts involved a husband who had had multiple adulterous relationships (including one in which the husband pled guilty to murder and for which he was incarcerated throughout the divorce case), had allegedly engaged in threatening contact towards his wife, and had spent great lengths of time away from the marital home. The husband had non-marital real property, no expenses due to his incarceration, a long employment history, and claimed to have job prospects after his eventual release from prison. The wife was in poor physical health, had limited income, no assets, and no job prospects. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court had failed to consider these factors (which encompass both specifically enumerated statutory factors and other factors) in its distribution of the property (at 224-225):
The court must engage in a comprehensive assessment of all relevant factors before arriving at an equitable distribution of property. See Bowser, 515 A.2d at 1130. The court cannot start with a presumption of equal distribution and demand that one party produce evidence sufficient to "destroy" the other party's "equal interest in the property."
Even putting aside the court's apparent use of an improper presumption of equal distribution, the court's order cannot be sustained. The trial court failed to consider several of the specifically enumerated statutory factors, about which there was record evidence and which have an important bearing on deciding what constitutes an equitable distribution of the marital home in this case. The court did not mention the parties' health and respective financial circumstances. See D.C.Code § 16-910(b) (quoted supra note 6). The evidence suggests that Mrs. Burwell was in far worse physical condition than Mr. Burwell. Mrs. Burwell's only income, moreover, was a disability check, more than half of which was consumed by the mortgage on the house. She had no assets (other than the marital home) and no prospect of employment or other income. Mr. Burwell, on the other hand, had an interest in non-marital real property located in Missouri, no expenses while he was in prison, a long history of gainful employment, and, according to his own testimony and correspondence with his wife, significant prospects for employment, despite his age, upon his release from prison. In short, we do not understand how the trial court could arrive at an equitable distribution of the marital estate without considering the overall financial statutes, respectively, of Mr. and Mrs. Burwell. See Leftwich, 442 A.2d at 143 (remanding for further factfinding where "trial court expressly focused on just the husband's financial contributions to the acquisition of the marital property, without regard to any contributions by the wife or the fact that she was markedly less able to acquire assets given the parties respective earning capacities").
The trial court also failed to consider in any meaningful way Mr. Burwell's long history
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of absence from the District and the marital home, his adulterous relationships, his murder of his mistress, and his allegedly threatening conduct towards Mrs. Burwell, in the context of assessing "each party's contribution... to the family unit." D.C.Code § 16-910(b); accord, Pimble, 521 A.2d at 1174 (remanding because trial court failed to make adequate findings of fact with respect to, among other relevant factors, the "wife's adulterous activities prior to and after her abandonment of her husband, her family, and home"). While we do not decide how much weight the court should have given to these non-economic factors, we reiterate that the trial court must consider all relevant factors in order, to arrive at an "equitable, just, and reasonable" division of assets and for this court to exercise meaningful appellate review. Dews v. Dews, 632 A.2d 1160, 1164 (D.C.1993); Leftwich, 442 A.2d at 143.
We also are not satisfied with the court's conclusory observation that Mr. Burwell's contribution to the house, by adding several rooms and providing financially for its maintenance before his incarceration, equalled Mrs. Burwell's "monetary contribution." Cf. Joel, 559 A.2d at 772 (remanding for further findings where trial court stated simply that wife's non-economic contributions equalled husband's economic contributions and imposed an equal distribution of property). The parties' respective monetary contributions to the property are highly relevant in reaching an equitable distribution of the property. The court's equation of the two sides in this case, without any subsidiary findings to support this conclusion, makes it impossible for us to assess the correctness of the ruling. See Pimble, 521 A.2d at 1175. This flaw is particularly significant because of the court's failure to determine whether Mrs. Burwell received any of the benefit from the mortgage loan taken out in 1983 and from the $5,000 consumer loan taken out in 1984—loans, it would appear, she was almost entirely responsible for repaying herself. See supra notes 2, 4.
In Herron v. Johnson, 714 A.2d 783 (D.C. 1998) ("Herron"), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that an equitable distribution of property must take into consideration the dissipation of marital property by one of the parties if that property was accumulated during the marriage (at 784-785):
D.C.Code § 16-910(b), in relevant part, provides that upon the entry of a final decree of divorce, the court
shall ... distribute all ... property accumulated during the marriage ... in a manner that is equitable, just and reasonable, after considering all relevant factors including, but not limited to: ... each party's contribution to the ... dissipation or depreciation in value of the assets subject to distribution. Emphasis added.
While the trial court has "broad discretion" in achieving a fair division of marital property under this section, it "must consider all factors relevant to the case before it." Negretti v. Negretti, 621 A.2d 388, 389 (D.C. 1993). Pension rights, to the extent acquired during the marriage, are property subject to distribution under § 16-910(b). Sanders v. Sanders, 602 A.2d 663, 669 (D.C.1992); Barbour v. Barbour, 464 A.2d 915, 919 (D.C.1983).
Section 16-910 (b) expressly requires the court, in effecting distribution, to consider "dissipation ... in value" of the property by a party to the divorce. The issue before us
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is whether that obligation extends to property which no longer exists at the time of dissolution because it has been wholly dissipated. The answer is not difficult. It surely would not further the aim of an "equitable, just and reasonable" distribution to exempt a complete dissipation of property from the statute's reach but not a partial one. If the statute required distributable property to be owned by the spouses at the time marital litigation commences, see, e.g., Panhorst v. Panhorst, 301 S.C. 100, 390 S.E.2d 376 (Ct. App.1990) (applying statute so requiring), the trial court's decision here would be sound, though the result arguably inequitable. But § 16-910(b) refers only to property "accumulated during the marriage," and given that language, we are under no constraint to reward a spouse who completely dissipates marital property prior to the start of divorce proceedings.
The Court of Appeals explained that dissipation under D.C. Code § 16-910 can be shown by unrebutted prima facie evidence that a spouse used marital property for their own personal benefit at a time the marriage was irreconcilably breaking down. If dissipation occurred, the court must distribute the property in question without regards to whether it still exists (at 786):
We adopt the teaching of these decisions. Dissipation under § 16-910(b) is the disposition of marital property by a spouse in a manner intended to "circumvent the equitable distribution of the marital estate." Cox, 639 A.2d at 99. This may be shown by prima facie evidence, unrebutted, that the spouse used marital property for his or her own benefit and for a purpose unrelated to the marriage at a time when the marriage was undergoing an irreconcilable breakdown. Upon a finding of dissipation, the court must distribute the property in question—and enter judgment accordingly—whether or not the asset still exists. Whether and how that judgment can be enforced may depend on future events. See, e.g., A.I.D. v. P.M.D., 408 A.2d at 943 (award of $40,000 to wife "payable out of future trust income" from husband's inter vivos trust, "if necessary").
In Herron, the trial court determined that a pension accumulated during the marriage by the husband, which was marital property, had been withdrawn and dissipated without the wife's knowledge or consent. Nonetheless, the trial court refused to distribute the pension rights on the grounds that, by the time of the divorce, there was no marital property available for distribution. The Court of Appeals held that was an erroneous interpretation of the statute and remanded (at 786):
In this case, the trial court found that Johnson's pension funds were accumulated during the marriage, and that he withdrew them for his own personal use without the knowledge or consent of Herron.2 Because the court erroneously believed it was not authorized to distribute funds no longer in existence, however, it made no determination as to the condition of the parties' marriage at the time Johnson withdrew the funds—a matter of importance, since Johnson began piecemeal withdrawals as far back as 1987. We thus lack an adequate record on which to decide the ultimate question of whether the withdrawals (all or part of them) were made in order to defeat Herron's equitable distribution rights. On remand, the trial court must address this issue and, if it finds that dissipation occurred within the definition adopted here, distribute the pension rights in an equitable manner and reenter judgment accordingly.3.
In Sudderth v. Sudderth, 984 A.2d 1262 (D.C. 2009) ("Sudderth"), the divorcing spouses had acquired various real property and other assets during their marriage, and the trial court awarded some of these properties to the husband, a musician who had spent time renovating and managing the real properties. The wife was a licensed attorney, the primary breadwinner, and the person responsible for paying various expenses on the real property. On appeal, the wife argued that the trial court gave too much weight to the husband's renovations and contributions to the properties, but the District of Columbia Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that there was sufficient evidence regarding the husband's contributions to the properties and to the marital home (at 1268):
Mrs. Sudderth further argues that the trial court gave too much weight to Mr. Sudderth's renovations and contributions to the four properties and failed to give proper weight to Mrs. Sudderth's contributions to the acquisition of the properties. Based on the evidence, we are satisfied that, despite Mrs. Sudderth's claims, the trial court gave meaningful consideration "to each party's contributions to the acquisition, preservation, appreciation, dissipation, or depreciation in value" of the four properties. See § 16-910(b)(10).
In its judgment, the trial court expressly acknowledged Mrs. Sudderth's contributions as the "primary breadwinner" as it noted that, during the marriage, she paid all the mortgages, taxes, insurance, and utilities on all four properties while Mr. Sudderth was unemployed. But the trial court also took note of the fact that, while Mr. Sudderth may have experienced substantial periods of unemployment, he renovated the properties and tended to the marital home. Mrs. Sudderth herself testifies to Mr. Sudderth doing the grocery shopping, driving her to work, performing repair work and installations on the properties, and contributing his paychecks to their joint account. And even if Mrs. Sudderth testified that Mr. Sudderth's handiwork was "terrible," the trial court was free to credit the testimony of Mr. Joe Mack and Ms. Teresa Diakhate, both of whom were close to the parties' and described Mr. Sudderth's repair work as "excellent" or "exceptional." Also, based on Mr. Sudderth's testimony and detailed record of his expenditures, there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court's conclusion that Mr. Sudderth contributed "a lion's share" of his $110,000 inheritance to the parties' family expenses, including money toward acquiring the Pineview Court property. Thus, there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court's conclusion here.
The trial court had made a distribution of property to the husband in lieu of alimony. On appeal, the wife claimed that this was improper, as no exact dollar figure for alimony was provided. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument and held that an equitable distribution in lieu of marital property was proper (at 1265-1266):
Mrs. Sudderth's claim that the trial court erred in distributing marital property
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in lieu of alimony is based in part on her contention that such an award is improper unless the trial court first determines the exact dollar amount of any alimony owed. However, nowhere in the record does it appear that Mrs. Sudderth requested that the trial court make a specific dollar determination. And while we understand Mrs. Sudderth's argument, under the D.C.Code and our case law, it is within the trial court's discretion to award marital property in lieu of alimony. Moreover, we are unaware of any restraints on the trial court's ability to award marital property in lieu of alimony. In fact, we have found it not to be an abuse of discretion when a trial court denies a request for alimony and yet awards marital property, including a valuable home and a one year old car, "in lieu of alimony." See Weiner v. Weiner, 605 A.2d 18 (D.C.1992). Thus, we see no reason to disturb the trial court's order in this regard merely because the trial court did not specify an amount of alimony against which the distribution of property in lieu of alimony could be measured.
The Court of Appeals analyzed the trial court's treatment of the equitable distribution statutory factor listed at D.C. Code § 16-910(b)(9), which addresses "each party’s increase or decrease in income as a result of the marriage." Evidence was presented that the husband had given up a music career for the marriage and that an agreement had been made by both divorcing spouses to do that. The Court of Appeals held that the evidence on this point was properly considered based on the record (at 1268):
Turning to the factor regarding "each party's increase or decrease in income as a result of the marriage," Mrs. Sudderth argues that the trial court erroneously concluded that the parties had jointly decided that Mr. Sudderth would give up his music career for the marriage. See § 16-910(b)(9). While Mrs. Sudderth may assert that there was no agreement to this effect, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the trial court's conclusion to the contrary. Mainly, Mr. Sudderth testified to the parties' agreement that he find more stable employment after they married, and the trial court credited Mr. Sudderth's testimony on the matter. Thus, because there is support in the record for the trial court's conclusion, we will not disturb it. See, e.g., Barnes v. Sherman, 758 A.2d 936, 941-42 (D.C.2000) ("[T]he trial court, as the arbiter of the credibility of witnesses," did not abuse its discretion by refusing to credit wife's testimony on the value of the parties' newspaper business.); Meredith v. Meredith, 614 A.2d 920 (D.C.1992) (affirming the trial court's decision not to credit the wife's testimony, and its conclusion that she was unemployed at the time of the divorce, where there was sufficient evidence contrary to the wife's claim to support the trial court's conclusion).
In Broadwater v. Broadwater, 449 A.2d 286 (D.C. 1982), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that the trial court's award of a greater share of the marital home on account of a serious health condition was within the proper exercise of the court's broad discretion (at 286-287):
The trial court, after hearing testimony from both parties as well as medical
testimony concerning the husband's "degenerating spinal arthritis," awarded the husband possession and a 60% ownership interest in the marital home, and "the first right" within a specific period of time to purchase the wife's resultant 40% ownership interest at "market value." The disposition of contested property pursuant to D.C.Code 1981, § 16-910(b) is within the exercise of the trial court's broad discretion in domestic relations matters. Turpin v. Turpin, D.C.App., 403 A.2d 1144 (1979). See Benvenuto v. Benvenuto, D.C.App., 389 A.2d 795 (1978). We are satisfied upon review of this record that the court's division of the parties' ownership interests in the marital home was according to § 16-910(b), and is supported by the evidence. See Quarles v. Quarles, D.C.App., 353 A.2d 285, 287 (1976); D.C.Code 1981, § 17-305(a). Accordingly, we affirm this portion of the court's order.1