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 Three Weeks Ending May 10, 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:              Santos v. Santos
Court:             Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Amy Smith.
Attorneys:     Christine Greider, Justin C. Carlin, James W. Chandler.
Issues:            Parenting, Child Support. 

Holding:  The use of outdated financial information in calculating a child support award can constitute reversible error. In this case, the trial court erred in its modification of the child support plan in the final judgment when it used outdated financial information from both the Former Wife and the Former Husband in calculating the amount of child support. The appeals court reversed the final judgment with respect to the child support modification and remanded for the trial court to reconsider the support award in light of the parties' updated financial information. 

Case:              Robertson v. Robertson
Court:             Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Merrilee Ehrlich.
Attorneys:     John T. David, Rhoda Sokoloff.
Issues:            Injunction for Protection. 

Holding:  Florida Statutes (2013), criminalizes a person who wilfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person. To harass, is to engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose. This “course of conduct” includes “a series of acts over a period of time, however short, which evidences a continuity of purpose.” In this case, the trial court did not err in entering the injunction insofar as surveillance-based evidence showed three incidents, which were further verified by Appellant’s e-mail to Appellee admitting to being at her residence, established a course of conduct sufficient to support the trial court’s entry of the injunction against Appellant. 

Case:              Plummer v. Forget
Court:             Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:    Dan Traver.
Attorneys:      Patrick Michael Megaro, Jennifer M. Manyen.
Issues:            Injunction for Protection. 

Holding:  A person commits the act of stalking by wilfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following, harassing, or cyberstalking another person. To harass another person means to engage in a course of conduct directed at that specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to him or her and serves no legitimate purpose.  A course of conduct is a series of actions, over a period of time, which evidences a continuity of purpose. Each incident of stalking must be proven by competent, substantial evidence.  When evaluating whether competent, substantial evidence supports a trial court's ruling, legal sufficiency, as opposed to evidentiary weight, is the appropriate concern of an appellate tribunal. In determining whether each incident of harassment causing substantial emotional distress has been established to support a finding of stalking, courts use a reasonable person standard, not a subjective standard. In this case the trial court erred in entering the injunction for protection as the evidence was legally insufficient to support doing so. The appeals court reversed. 

Case:              Beckstrom v. Beckstrom
Court:             Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Amy Smith.
Attorneys:      Betty C. Resch, Sean P. Sheppard.
Issues:            Alimony, Attorney’s Fees. 
Holding:  Attorney’s Fees

Despite the lack of a transcript and an adequate record, when the error appears on the face of the judgment, it should be corrected. A trial court may order a party to pay a reasonable amount for attorney’s fees. The trial court is required to consider the financial resources of both parties and make findings regarding their respective financial needs and abilities to pay. Failure to do so requires reversal. The trial court also has discretion to allow payment of an award of attorney’s fees over time, but it must set out a factual basis for imposing the specific payment plan selected.  In this case, the trial court found the Former Wife was in need of attorney’s fees, but did not make a finding as to the Former Husband’s ability to pay and did not set forth any factual basis for imposing this specific payment plan. The appeals court reversed the judgment on this issue and remanded the case to the trial court to make the requisite written findings.

Life Insurance Policy

Under the invited error rule, a party cannot successfully complain about an error for which he or she is responsible or of rulings that he or she invited the court to make. In this case, the trial court did not err in ordering the Former Husband to purchase a life insurance policy and include such a provision in his proposed final judgment when the Former Husband so agreed earlier in the proceedings. The appeals court affirmed on this point. 

Case:              Gilroy v. Gilroy
Court:             Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Amy M. Williams.
Attorneys:     Jane H. Grossman, Peter N. Meros.
Issues:            Time-sharing, Child Support. 

Holding:  Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure require the filing of a financial affidavit in supplemental dissolution proceedings, with service within 45 days of service of the initial pleading on the respondent. The Rules provide a continuing duty to supplement financial affidavits upon a material change in financial circumstances. The requirement to provide a financial affidavit in supplemental proceedings is mandatory and cannot be waived by the parties. As well, a request for a continuance must be entertained, in order to properly present evidence regarding the relevant issues. In this case, the trial court erred in denying the Former Husband's request for a continuance when the Former Wife did not serve and file her financial evidence in compliance with the Rules and giving the Former Husband sufficient time to properly review it and prepare.  The appeals court reversed and ordered a new hearing on the issue of child support and directed that discovery be conducted prior to the final hearing on remand.

Case:              C.D. v. D.C.F.
Court:             First District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   David M. Gooding.
Attorneys:     Jeffrey E. Lewis, Crystal McBee Frusciante, Kelley Schaeffer, Ward L. Metzger.
Issues:            Termination. 

Holding:  In termination of parental rights cases, the standard of review is highly deferential. The trial court's findings must be supported by competent substantial evidence. In order for parental rights to be permanently and involuntarily severed, the state must show by clear and convincing evidence that reunification with the parent poses a substantial risk of significant harm to the child. As parental rights constitute a fundamental liberty interest, the state must establish in each case that termination of those rights is the least restrictive means of protecting the child from serious harm. Florida statutes provide that the availability of a placement with a relative may not be considered as a ground to deny the termination of parental rights. However, in this case the applicable test was whether termination was the least restrictive means of protecting a child from serious harm. In this case, the trial court erred as it found the least restrictive means of achieving permanency and held that termination was the least restrictive means of protecting the children from harm. The appeals court reversed. 

Case:              Sisca v. Sisca
Court:             Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Thomas H. Barkdull, III.
Attorneys:      Roger Levine, Amy D. Shield, Jonathan M. Streisfeld, Michael B. Gilden.
Issues:            Alimony, Attorney’s Fees. 

Holding:        Under Florida statute, awards of attorney’s fees must be based on evidence that demonstrates the requisite need and ability to pay. An obligor should not be made to invade certain assets and investments if there is evidence the obligee has their own assets upon which he or she could rely. In this case, the trial court erred in ordering the Former Wife to pay the Former Husband’s attorney’s fees despite evidence showing her net income was lower than his. Rather, the trial court based its decision on financial evidence showing her investments, liquid assets, were worth more than his. However, based on their respective net monthly incomes, to pay his fees, the Former Wife would have to invade the liquid assets, while his financial evidence showed he had investments and other assets on which he could rely. Under these circumstances, it was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion to require the Former wife to pay the Former Husband’s fees. The appeals court reversed the fee awards. 

Case:              D.S. v. D.C.F.
Court:             Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Hope Bristol.
Attorneys:   Antony P. Ryan, Paulina Forrest, Pamela Jo Bondi, Carolyn Schwarz, Patricia Murphy Propheter.
Issues:            Termination. 

Holding:  Termination of parental rights by the state requires clear and convincing evidence establishing one of the enumerated statutory grounds including risk to the child; that termination is in the manifest best interest of the child; and that termination is the least restrictive means of protecting the child from harm. Grounds for establishing termination can include the incarceration of a parent and whether the period of time for which the parent will be incarcerated will constitute a significant portion of the child’s minority. In 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. The court must look both at the length of the incarceration as well as its effect on the child’s need for permanency.  The state must prove that termination is in the best interest of the child and the least restrictive means of protecting him or her from harm. In this case the trial court was correct in terminating for the minor child who had been in foster care, the foster parents anticipated adopting him and he did not wish to see his father. The state proved same by clear and convincing evidence. That child’s need for permanency (being adopted) was paramount, supported by competent substantial evidence, in the manifest best interest of the child and was the least restrictive means to prevent harm to him.

As for the children living with a relative, the trial court erred in terminating as the state did not establish grounds for same. The children were living with a relative, and the Father maintained as close a relationship as his incarceration has allowed and the finding that his incarceration amounted to a significant portion of the children’s minorities was not supported by substantial and competent evidence. Nor was it shown that termination was in the children’s best interest nor the least restrictive means to prevent harm to the children. The appeals court affirmed the termination regarding the one child parental but we reversed the termination as to the other children.

Case:              Brandon-Thomas v. Brandon-Thomas
Court:             Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   John E. Duryea, Jr..
Attorneys:     Luis E. Insignares, Brian J. Kruger, Michael E. Chionopoulos, Pamela Jo Bondi, Allen Winsor, Adam S. Tanenbaum.
Issues:             Same-Sex Marriage. 
Holding:  The trial court was reversed for dismissing a same-sex divorce case based on lack of jurisdiction.  The appellate court remanded to the trial court to consider the merits of the divorce petition.

Like those federal court decisions recognizing same-sex marriages, a same-sex divorce must be analysed principally for compliance with the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the federal constitution to the extent that the trial court's order denied relief to the appellant. The application of the constitutional principles of equal protection and due process apply to the dissolution of same-sex marriages. The issues at hand require key focus. The primary issues at hand involve the rights of a same-sex couple, validly married in another state and now living in Florida, to seek a dissolution of marriage in Florida. A heterosexual couple under similar circumstance could easily invoke a Florida trial court's jurisdiction. More precisely defining the issue and the right enables easier application of the constitutional principles of equal protection and due process.

In this case, the court is petitioned to assist in returning the parties to single status – to adjust the parties' financial and property relationships and provide some judicial direction concerning child custody. The parties are not asking a Florida court to form a marital union, they seek disengagement from a broken relationship. Upon dissolution of marriage, the parties will each be single. Apart from the mandates of any final judgment, any state or federal obligations or benefits attendant to marriage presumably will cease.  A well-settled general framework is utilized for the constitutional analysis. The substantive component of the Due Process Clause checks state authority to enact untenable measures, even if enacted with appropriate procedural safeguards. Substantive due process protects fundamental rights. As the Florida Constitution and legislation classify same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples for purposes of dissolution of marriage, the proper definition of the right sought plays a leading role. In this case, the state failed to identify and argue the proper right. Rather, it pursued analysis and argument related to Florida’s ban of same-sex marriage and regarding Florida laws, under which, sexual orientation is not a protected class entitled to strict-scrutiny analysis.  As the state bears the burden of presenting only a rational basis for its legislation, on the arguments presented, it fell short and tied the analysis to the need to promote procreation and have children raised in a particular family situation. The state made this a same-sex issue when it is not. Once the real issues are defined that becomes apparent. However, even if Florida's purported interest in procreation and having children raised in a heterosexual household were rational reasons to ban same-sex marriage, the state did not establish why or how prohibiting a validly married same-sex couple from seeking a divorce in Florida advances either of these interests. The state has not articulated how prohibiting a trial court from dissolving a same-sex marriage, validly entered into in another state, will promote a rise in procreation. Nor does the state explain how denying a couple a divorce will optimize what it sees as an ideal environment for raising children. Indeed, in the context of a marriage dissolution, the trial court will be in an ideal situation to protect the best interest of the child parented by this couple. The appeals court did not discount the state's reason for enacting its laws and noted that a court should defer to the state when it has provided a basis for its statutory and constitutional classifications. However, such deference presupposes that the state has a rational basis for its position, which in this case, was not established.   

Case:              Gilliard v. Gilliard
Court:             Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge:   Linda Schoonover.
Attorneys:      David L. Robold, Shannon L. Akins, Nicholas A. Shannin, Patrick John McGinley.
Issues:            Alimony, Equitable Distribution, Attorney’s Fees. 
Holding:  Alimony
In order to award alimony, a court must make a specific factual determination as to whether either party has an actual need for alimony or maintenance and whether either party has the ability to pay alimony or maintenance. The burden to show his or her financial need and the spouse’s ability to pay is on the party requesting alimony. A marriage having a duration of greater than 7 years but less than 17 years is considered a moderate-term marriage and there is no presumption for or against permanent alimony. Permanent alimony may be awarded following a moderate-term marriage if such an award is appropriate based upon clear and convincing evidence after consideration of the factors set out by statute. The purpose of permanent alimony is to provide the needs and the necessities of life to a former spouse as they have been established by the marriage of the parties.          The ability to pay alimony should be based on the party’s net, not gross, income.

In this case, the trial court erred in awarding alimony based on the Former Husband’s gross income. The trial court also erred in considering Former Husband’s future retirement benefits as both current income and a marital asset, included in its distribution of the parties’ marital assets when the future retirement benefits should be considered in the division of marital assets.  The trial court erred further when it failed to make specific written findings regarding the standard of living established during the marriage, the contributions of each party to the marriage, or the tax treatment and consequences of awarding alimony.

Equitable Distribution

Under Florida statute, in distributing marital assets and liabilities between the parties, the court must begin with the premise that the distribution should be equal. Although a trial court may distribute marital assets and liabilities unequally, it is required to justify such an award based on all relevant factors under statute. A court should make enumerated findings related to each factor under statute. While parties may agree to a specific distribution of some of their assets and liabilities in a mediated or other settlement agreement, the court should placed values on the various items of personal property because each division and distribution of a marital asset and liability is interrelated to form an overall scheme fair to both parties.

The trial court erred in awarding an asset to the Former Wife firstly in the equitable distribution scheme and then a second time in the attorney’s fees. The trial court erred in failing to place a value on the parties’ automobiles, furniture, and furnishings distributed pursuant to the partial mediation agreement and erred when it ordered the Former Husband to make mortgage payments if he failed to make his alimony payments. Proper recourse there would have been to impose sanctions for wilfully failing to comply with a court order. The trial court also erred in failing to consider the consolidation loan as a marital liability.

ttorney’s Fees

An award of attorney’s fees must be based on clear and cogent evidence of the parties’ respective need and ability to pay. Such findings must be housed in specific factual findings which also include those regarding the attorney’s work (ie: reasonable number of hours spent and the reasonable hourly rate.)  In this case, the trial court did not err in that regard, but did improperly include an asset that was already distributed when it conducted the ability to pay analysis.

The appeals court reversed the entire distribution plan and remanded for reconsideration. 

About DivorceCourtAppeals.com and Bruce Law Firm, P.A.

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.