Below are summaries of recent decisions from Florida's appellate courts on Florida divorce and family law issues. Clicking on the case name allows you to view the appellate opinion described in the analysis below. These summaries are courtesy of Bruce Law Firm, P.A., a law firm limited to representation of clients in the mediation, litigation and appeals of Florida marital and family law matters. The firm also created and maintains the family law focused appellate resources website DivorceCourtAppeals.com.
Case: Williams v. Williams
Court: First District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Kelvin C. Wells.
Attorneys: Jerome M. Novey, Shannon L. Novey, Christin F. Gonzalez, John F. Greene.
Issues: Equitable Distribution.
Holding: A trial court’s fair market value determination of marital assets must be supported by competent, substantial evidence. Equalization payments and asset distribution must be supported by competent, substantial evidence and trial court must provide sufficient findings and documentation to allow the appellate court meaningful review. In this case, the trial court erred as it did not base its equitable distribution of marital assets and an equalization payment to the Former Wife on competent and substantial evidence. The error was such that the appeals court could not conduct meaningful review of the judgment at issue. The appeals court reversed and remanded those parts of the judgment which were erroneous.
Case: Bronstein v. Bronstein
Court: Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Scott M. Bernstein.
Attorneys: Liliana Loebl, Daniel Kaplan, Daniels Kashtan, Lorne E. Berkeley.
Issues: Parenting, Procedure.
Holding: To obtain a writ of certiorari, there must exist: (1) a departure from the essential requirements of the law; (2) resulting in material injury; (3) that cannot be corrected on postjudgment appeal. Further, a motion for modification of timesharing must be given notice of the hearing, and present the relief being sought. Specifically, it should be based, and established, on competent and substantial evidence, a material change in circumstances. Such a motion must also involve the taking of evidence and any order that arises should include factual findings. If an order grants relief of an emergency nature, there should be evidence of a true emergency (ie: that the minor child involved is at risk of harm or will be removed from the jurisdiction.)
In this case, the trial court erred in ordering a modification of the parties’ parenting plan on application by the Former Husband insofar as although the Former Wife was given notice of (and attended) the hearing in this matter, the Former Husband’s motion did not seek a modification of the timesharing arrangement, and Former Wife was not on notice that such relief was within the scope of the motion or the hearing. Further, the motion was unverified; the motion did not seek emergency relief; and the trial court did not take any testimony or rely upon any sworn evidence. There was nothing provided by Former Husband to establish a true emergency or to suggest that Child was being threatened with physical harm or about to be improperly removed from the State of Florida. There was nothing presented even to establish the existence of a substantial change of circumstances such that Child’s temporary relocation to Colorado pending the evidentiary hearing was warranted and in Child’s best interest. The court’s Order, which contained no factual findings, was based solely on argument from counsel and the unverified allegations in the Former Husband’s Motion. In rendering its emergency Order upon this basis, and scheduling the evidentiary hearing some four months later, the court departed from the essential requirements of the law, causing irreparable harm that cannot be remedied on post-judgment appeal.
The appeals court granted the Former Wife’s petition, issued the writ of certiorari, and quashed the impugned order below, with instructions that minor child be returned to Former Wife’s care and remanded for further proceedings.
Case: Edgar v. Firuta
Court: Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Luis M. Garcia.
Issues: Parenting, Attorney’s Fees.
Holding: Florida procedural Rules authorize a court to permit testimony at a civil hearing or trial by audio or video communication equipment by agreement of the parties or for good cause shown on written request of a party and reasonable notice to all other parties. In this case, the trial court erred in denying the Mother’s petition to telephonically appear at the hearing addressing timesharing and related matters, because the Father objected. The Mother, who was unemployed and had not received child support for the parties’ four children from the Father, lived in North Carolina, had made her petition to appear via technological communications, some 2 months after the procedural rules were amended to so allow such appearance. The court below was not, therefore, barred from considering the mother’s request to testify by telephone simply because the father objected but could have allowed the testimony for good cause shown. The appeals court reversed.
Case: Badgley v. Sanchez
Court: Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Steven B. Feren.
Attorneys: J. Scott Gunn, Sue-Ellen Kenny, Scott D. Glassman.
Issues: Equitable Distribution, Alimony.
Holding: Equitable Distribution
Florida Statutes (2013), governing distribution of marital assets and liabilities, provides that the trial court must begin with the premise that the distribution should be equal and requires consideration and factual findings in the judgment regarding nine specified factors in assessing whether an unequal distribution is warranted. In this case, trial court erred in awarding a 60/40 distribution which was premised solely on the parties’ income and which failed to contain the factual findings required by statute.
Florida Statutes (2013), authorizes the award of alimony, based on consideration of a variety of factors that the court shall consider in determining the amount and type. A trial court errs where it fails to make the findings required by statute. In this case, the trial court erred as the final judgment regarding alimony failed to reference the statutory provision and the relevant factors, despite the fact that some of the findings could be fairly read to correlate with the relevant factors. The appeals court reversed on both above issues.
Case: B.K. v. D.C.F.
Court: Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Hope Bristol.
Attorneys: Lori D. Shelby, Pamela Jo Bondi, Carolyn Schwarz.
Holding: Florida statute provides incarceration as a ground for termination. Specifically, under statute, termination may be ordered when the parent of a child is incarcerated and the period of time for which the parent is expected to be incarcerated will constitute a significant portion of the child’s minority. When determining whether the period of time is significant, the court shall consider the child’s age and the child’s need for a permanent and stable home. The period of time begins on the date that the parent enters into incarceration. In addition, the trial court must find that termination is in the manifest best interests of the child. In making this determination, Florida statute sets forth a list of non-exclusive relevant factors, including, but not limited to: (1) any suitable permanent custody arrangement with a relative; (2) the ability the parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care or other remedial care; (3) the capacity of the parent or parents to care for the child to the extent that the child’s safety, well-being, and physical, mental, and emotional health will not be endangered upon the child’s return home; and others. Finally, the Department must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination is the least restrictive means to prevent serious harm to the child. In this case, the trial court did not err as it considered the relevant factors and made the required factual findings. In so doing, the court found termination of parental rights was the least restrictive means of protecting the minor child from harm because the child had not seen the Father since tiny infancy and did not know him. The appeals court affirmed but remanded to the trial court to consider access between the Father and the minor child.
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Matthew S. Nugent, Adam M. Zborowski & Christopher R. Bruce limit their practice to resolution of marital and family law matters in Florida's trial and appellate courts. The firm handles divorce litigation in South Florida and accepts referrals for appellate representation in all of Florida’s appellate courts. The firm pays referral fees in accordance with Florida Bar Rules for appellate matters, which are handled primarily on a fixed fee basis with a limited money back promise if the brief is not filed within 45 days of the firm receiving the transcript and record on appeal.