Weekly Law Update on Florida Divorce & Child Custody Cases

Weekly summaries of decisions made by Florida Court of Appeals on actual divorce, child custody, child support and alimony cases.  

Florida Divorce & Family Law Update for 3 Weeks Ending August 16, 2015

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:              Stoltzfus v. Stoltzfus
Court:            Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Marc B. Gilner.
Attorneys:     Troy H. Myers, Jr., Mark C. Dungan, Lori M. Dorman.
Issues:            Alimony.

Holding:         Moneys from retirement accounts which are distributed to the parties are considered income for the purpose of determining alimony where the principal of the retirement account will not be invaded for the purpose of support. It does not matter whether the party has attained the age at which funds may be withdrawn without penalty. Under Florida Statutes (2013), income includes retirement benefits, pensions, dividends, and interest. In this case, the trial court erred in not considering as income interest from pension accounts distributed to the Former Wife and interest-generating equalization payments from the Former Husband. The interest earned on the equalization payments fell within the statutory definition of income and should have been considered in calculating the Former Wife's income. The amended final judgment also contained a mathematical error in the calculation of the Former Wife's need. The appeals court reversed and remanded for a redetermination and recalculation.

Case:              Garcia v. Garcia
Court:            Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Barbara Areces.
Attorneys:     Douglas Isenberg.
Issues:            Child support.

Holding:         Florida Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a magistrate is responsible for creating an accurate and complete record of proceedings. A trial court may not adopt or ratify a magistrate’s report if he or she fails to file a complete record of the evidence with the report, regardless of whether exceptions have been filed to that report. If a trial court has not received a complete record, all subsequent actions based on such reports and recommendations may be deemed erroneous. In this case, the trial court erred when it ratified the general magistrate’s report despite having an incomplete record of the proceedings. A transcript from the hearing during which the testimony of the Former Husband and his accountant could not be prepared as the recording was inaudible. The testimony was absent from the record provided to the trial judge. The appeals court reversed and remanded with instructions to conduct further proceedings.

Case:              Hall v. Hall
Court:            Fouth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Timothy L. Bailey.
Attorneys:     Virginia R. Vetter, Susana Rice Roque, Linda M. Jaffe.
Issues:            Equitable Distribution, Marital Settlement Agreements.

Holding:         Two grounds lie for setting aside or modifying a Marriage Settlement Agreement (MSA):

1.     By establishing that it was reached under fraud, deceit, duress, coercion, misrepresentation, or overreaching.

2.     By establishing the MSA makes an unfair or unreasonable provision for a former spouse, given the circumstances of the parties as shown by evidence of the parties’ relative situations (including their respective ages, health, education, and financial status).  For this, determination, the trial court must find that the agreement is disproportionate to the means of the defending spouse, shown by record evidence of his or her financial means. If the MSA is found to be unreasonable, a presumption arises that either the defending spouse concealed relevant information or the challenging spouse lacked information regarding the defending spouse’s finances when the MSA was reached. The defending spouse can rebut by showing that there was full, frank disclosure or that the challenging spouse had a general and approximate knowledge of the marital property. The test is the challenging spouse’s such knowledge at the time of the MSA and whether he or she is prejudiced by lack of information.

Refusal to allow an amendment is an abuse of the trial court’s discretion unless it clearly appears that allowing the amendment would prejudice the opposing party, the privilege to amend has been abused, or amendment would be futile.

MSA Was Valid & Enforceable

Regarding the first ground, the Former Husband did not present evidence that the Former Wife or her attorney engaged in any fraud, duress, etc during the relevant proceedings. Rather, his position is that his attorney forgot to present an alleged first (missing) page of a draft version of the MSA to the Former Wife for her to consider.

As to the second ground, the Former Husband did not present evidence as to the parties’ relative situations to allow a trial court to make a decision as to its being unreasonable. The form of the MSA accepted by the trial court contained the style of the case, a clear heading, the parties’ initials, a signature page, and addressed the parties’ financial accounts by stating that they agreed to certain aspects of distribution. As such, and since he did not provide evidence of a purported additional page, the trial court did not err by ruling that the MSA filed by Former Wife was a valid, enforceable agreement.

Permission to Amend

The trial court erred when it denied the Former Husband’s motion to amend his answer on the grounds that it had been 18 months since the Former Wife filed her petition and the case was 30 days from trial. On the facts, it is not clear that allowing Former Husband leave to amend would have prejudiced Former Wife. Nor did he abuse the privilege to amend as this was his first such request. Finally, he sought to amend to raise and address relevant issues.

The appeals court reversed and remanded with instructions to allow Former Husband to file his amended answer.

Case:              Kemp v. Kemp
Court:            First District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Daniel F. Wilensky.
Attorneys:     Seth Schwartz, Eric Lawson, Allison E. Folds.
Issues:            Equitable Distribution,  Attorney’s Fees.

Holding:         A trial court may not order an interim partial equitable distribution in the absence of a verified motion requesting same. In this case the trial court erred when, after a hearing on the Former Wife’s motion for temporary attorney’s fees (past due and prospective) issued an order finding that the Former Husband lacked the ability to pay her attorney’s fees and directed what was effectively an interim partial equitable distribution instead. The trial court lacked authority to do so as the relevant statutory requirements for such an order were not met. The trial court misapplied the law and failed to make proper findings to support its order. The appeals court reversed and remanded for reconsideration of the Former Wife’s motion for temporary attorney’s fees.

Case:              Freiha v. Freiha
Court:            First District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Charles W. Arnold.
Attorneys:     William S. Graessle, Jonathan W. Graessle, Rebecca Bowen Creed.
Issues:            Procedure.

Holding:         An appeal on a non-final Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage is premature. Where judgment is partial; reserves jurisdiction to expend additional judicial labor over further matters, such as non-collateral issues of child support and parental responsibility; or retains jurisdiction over integrally related issues, an appeal may be premature and improper. In this case, the appellant pursued appeal on a Final Order of Judgment that did not finally resolve integral matters. The appeal was dismissed without prejudice to the appellant to file a notice of appeal upon the rendition of a final order.

Case:              J.C. v. D.C.F.
Court:            Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Rosa C. Figarola.
Attorneys:     Richard F. Joyce, Karla F. Perkins, Laura E. Lawson (Sanford).
Issues:            Termination, Case Plan.

Holding:         An order for termination must sufficiently articulates the trial court’s considerations and findings. However, if record evidence and the detailed considerations of the trial court support a finding of termination, the wording of the order in that regard may be viewed as harmless error. In this case, the trial court erred in rendering an order that was did not sufficiently articulate that the Mother: (i) materially breached her case plan, and (ii) would be unlikely or unable to comply substantially with the case plan prior to its expiration. However, the appeals court determined this was harmless error as record evidence, together with the trial court’s detailed consideration of the Mother’s conduct, supported such an order for termination. The appeals court affirmed.

Case:              Lopez v. Lopez
Court:            Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Arthur M. Birken, Merrilee Ehrlich.
Attorneys:     Venol C. Adams, Susan R. Brown.
Issues:            Custody, Time-sharing.

Holding:         Orders determining the rights or obligations of a party regarding child custody or time-sharing under a parenting plan can be non-final orders. A timely motion for rehearing will suspend the rendition of a final order until the order disposing of the motion for rehearing is entered. However, a motion for rehearing does not suspend the rendition of a non-final order. Notice must be timely. In this case, the appellant (Father) appealed an order for custody, visitation and proposing a time-sharing schedule, which was conditioned on the successful outcome of reunification therapy. This was a non-final order. His notice of appeal was not filed within the procedural timelines (in this case, within thirty days) after the non-final order was rendered. The appeals court was required to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Case:              Whissell v. Whissell
Court:            Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Jeffrey Dana Gillen.
Attorneys:     Karen J. Haas, Jonathan S. Root.
Issues:            Contempt, Procedure.

Holding:         Where an appellant has disobeyed an order of the trial court, the appellate court may, in its discretion, either entertain or dismiss an appeal. However, where a dismissal is ordered it is mandatory that the non-compliant appellant must be given a period of grace, prior to the effective date of the dismissal, in which to comply with the order(s) at issue.

In this case, the appellant repeatedly refused to comply with the trial court’s orders regarding temporary support and discovery, resulting in four findings of contempt and three writs of bodily attachment. The appellant (Former Husband) was incarcerated for such conduct and was released only after he made some payment on arrearages and promised the trial court future compliance, which he ultimately breached. The appeals court ordered the appeal be dismissed unless he established substantial compliance with the extant orders within 30 days of the appeal court decision. Jurisdiction was relinquished to the trial court for 30 days to determine the appellant’s compliance and provide a status report.

Case:              Chianese v. Brady
Court:            Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Timothy Bailey.
Attorneys:     Nancy A. Hass, Cynthia L. Greene.
Issues:            Attorney’s Fees.

Holding:          The award of attorney’s fees is premised on the parties’ respective need and ability to pay. Notwithstanding, the trial court must also determine the reasonableness of the fees before ordering a party to pay fees. In this case, the trial court did not err in denying the Mother further attorney’s fees. The trial court determined that the case was “out of control”, the Mother had failed to prove the reasonableness of the fees requested, and the Father has already paid her temporary attorney’s fees. Specifically, it had previously awarded the Mother $30,000.00 for temporary fees, then denied a subsequent request for more, which denial was affirmed on appeal. She then filed an additional (third) motion for temporary attorney’s fees on the grounds that further substantial financial discovery was required as the Father was objecting and new and novel theories to obtain an increase in child support were being advanced. The appeals court affirmed the denial of additional fees.

Case:              Hutchinson v. Hutchinson
Court:            First District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Monica J. Brasington.
Attorneys:     Stephen K. Johnson, Emily A. Snider, Jonathan P. Culver.
Issues:            Alimony, Attorney’s Fees.

Holding:         An award of attorney’s fees is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Under Florida Statute, such awards are to ensure that both parties have a similar ability to obtain competent legal counsel. The general consideration is the requesting spouse’s financial need and the other spouse’s ability to pay. Where the parties are equally able to pay attorney’s fees, the trial court abuses its discretion by requiring one spouse to pay the other’s fees. Where marital property has been equitably distributed and alimony is awarded such that the parties’ incomes have been equalized, a trial court abuses its discretion by awarding attorney’s fees. In this case, the trial court erred in that it awarded the Former Wife attorney’s fees after it had rendered final judgment by which equitable distribution and alimony left the parties in substantially the same financial position. The appeal court reversed the award of attorney’s fees and costs.

Case:              Earl v. Earl
Court:            Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Thomas H. Barkdull, III.
Attorneys:     Jane Kreusler-Walsh, Stephanie L. Serafin, Troy William Klein.
Issues:            Alimony, Procedure.

Holding:         The written findings of a trial court must conform with the oral pronouncement.  In this case, the trial court erred in failing to provide that the Former Husband obtain and maintain life insurance in the (written) final judgment of dissolution despite having made such a determination in the oral pronouncement. The appeals court reversed and remanded to allow the trial court to include the Former Husband’s requirement to maintain life insurance.

Case:              Somasca v. Somasca
Court:            Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   John S. Carlin.
Attorneys:    J P. Brandon Perkins, Kristen D. Perkins, Brett C. Powell, Alexander Brockmeyer, Katheryn E. Smith.
Issues:            Equitable Distribution.

Holding:         When marital assets are used during the marriage to reduce the mortgage on non-marital property, the increase in equity on the property is a marital asset subject to equitable distribution. The increase in equity is not to be confused with the concept of the appreciation in the overall value of the asset. The enhancement in equity is captured under Florida Statute, which holds that marital assets and liabilities include, among other things, the enhancement in value and appreciation of non-marital assets resulting either from the efforts of either party during the marriage or from the  contribution to or expenditure thereon of marital funds or other forms of marital assets, or both. 

In this case, the trial court erred in its treatment of the reduction in the mortgage indebtedness on a building the Former Husband purchased prior to the marriage, which had depreciated in value (a non-marital asset). The parties used marital funds to reduce the mortgage on the building, which resulted in the Former Husband obtaining enhanced equity in the building despite the building depreciating in value during the parties’ marriage. The trial court erred in failing to give the Former Wife a credit for the use of marital funds to pay down the mortgage. The appeals court reversed the equitable distribution and remanded for correction. 

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The Bruce Law Firm, P.A. is limited to the resolution of marital and family la w 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.