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: Thompson v. Malicki
Court: Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Lee Ann Schreiber.
Attorneys: Christopher R. Bruce.
Issues: Relocation, Modification, Child Support
Holding: A trial court's imputation of income must be supported by competent, substantial evidence. When calculating child support, Florida Statutes (2011) provide that the trial court shall impute income to a voluntarily unemployed or underemployed parent absent a finding of fact by the court of physical or mental incapacity or other circumstances over which the parent has no control. Where income is to be imputed, the employment potential and probable earnings level of the parent shall be determined based upon his or her recent work history, occupational qualifications, and prevailing earnings level in the community if such information is available.
In this case the trial court did not err as to its modification of timesharing and the denial of relocation as those findings were based on cogent, substantial evidence. However, the trial court erred when it based an award of child on imputed income of the Former Wife which was not supported by sufficient findings or evidence. Reliance on past work history alone is insufficient to support imputation of income. Particularized findings are required regarding work history, occupational qualifications, and the current job market in the community to support the imputation of income. Failure to make these findings results in reversal.
The appeals court remanded for the trial court to take further evidence on this issue and recalculate the amount of child support as necessary.
Case: J.B. etc v. Florida D.C.F.
Court: Florida Supreme Court.
Attorneys: Stephanie Christina Zimmerman, Dwight Oneal Slater, Ryan Thomas Truskoski, George E. Schulz, Jr., Robin L. Rosenberg, Wendie Michelle Cooper, Kelley Ruth Schaeffer.
Issues: Termination, Process.
Holding: The right to counsel in termination of parental right (TPR) proceedings includes the right to effective assistance and requires a means of vindicating that right.
The Supreme Court considered two questions.
1. Is the criminal standard of ineffective assistance of counsel applicable to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings involving the termination of parental rights? The SC answered in the negative.
2. Is any procedure available following the termination of parental rights to raise claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that are not apparent on the face of the record? The SC answered in the affirmative.The Supreme Court:
a. established the appropriate standard for determining whether counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance in termination of parental rights proceedings;
b. provided a temporary process for bringing such claims of ineffective assistance; and
c. directed the development of rules providing the procedure for vindicating that right.
1. The Right to Counsel
Under Florida statutory law, parents have a right to counsel in both dependency and TPR proceedings. While the appointment of counsel is not required by the constitution, it is required under the due process clause of the United States and Florida Constitutions, in proceedings involving the permanent termination of parental rights to a child.
2. The Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel
The right of indigent parents to counsel under the Florida Constitution in TPR proceedings necessarily includes the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.
3. The Standard for Ineffective Assistance
The standard for determining ineffective assistance of counsel claims is that the parent must establish that the result of the TPR proceeding would have been different but for the attorney’s deficient performance. Once tis is established, then the order terminating parental rights should be vacated, and the case returned to the circuit court for further proceedings.
4. Temporary Procedure for Ineffective Assistance Claims in TPR Cases
Post-TPR proceedings must be expeditious. A permanent such process will be developed. The Supreme Court set an interim process for bringing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel following the termination of parental rights. This interim process requires that claims of ineffective assistance first must be raised by the parent and ruled on by the trial court. The trial judge must ensure that the parents whose rights are at issue are informed of those rights such that at the end of each TPR adjudicatory hearing, the circuit court shall orally inform the parents for whom counsel was appointed regarding the right to:
(1) appeal the order entered at the end of the TPR proceedings to the district court; and
(2) file a motion in the circuit court alleging that appointed counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance (if the court terminates parental rights).
In addition, a written order terminating parental rights shall include a brief statement informing the parents of the right to effective assistance and a brief explanation of the procedure for filing such a claim. Indigent parents (likewise without the assistance of appointed counsel) must file a motion in the circuit court claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel in the TPR proceeding. Appeal from an order denying a motion alleging the ineffective assistance of counsel will be raised and addressed within any appeal from the order terminating parental rights. A parent, without assistance of appointed counsel, shall have twenty (20) days after the termination judgment issues within which to file a motion in the trial court alleging claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The motion must contain the case name and number; the date the order of termination of parental rights issued; the specific acts or omissions in trial counsel’s representation of the parent during the TPR proceedings that the parent alleges constituted a failure to provide reasonable, professional assistance; and an explanation of how the errors or omissions prejudiced the parent’s case to such an extent that the result would have been different absent the deficient performance.
If a parent files an ineffective assistance of counsel motion, rendition of the order in the TPR proceeding will be tolled for purposes of appeal until the circuit court issues an order on the pro se ineffective assistance motion. If a parent chooses to file a motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, then counsel of record cannot continue representation.
If the parent chooses to appeal, the attorney must certify, among other things, that:
a. the parent so chose;
b. a notice of appeal signed by counsel;
c. the parent has been filed; and
d. an order appointing appellate counsel, if any, has been entered.
Further, the appointed attorney representing an indigent parent, must, after issuance of an order terminating parental rights, discuss appellate remedies and determine whether the parent wants to appeal the TPR order. If the answer is affirmative, counsel must also inquire whether the parent intends to file a motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. If the parent responds affirmatively, then counsel must immediately seek withdrawal on this basis. In addition, if the parent subsequently files a motion alleging ineffective assistance despite the parent’s prior expression of a contrary intent, if counsel of record is also appellate counsel withdrawal is required at that time, and new counsel will be appointed for any appeal from the TPR order and from the disposition of the ineffective assistance of counsel motion.
When a parent files a motion alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, rendition of the trial court’s TPR order will be tolled for purposes of appeal until the trial court rules on any claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court shall review the ineffective assistance motion and order compilation of the record regarding the termination of parental rights proceedings on an expedited basis. Further, the trial court shall conduct proceedings, including an evidentiary hearing if necessary, to determine whether the motion should be granted or denied. The circuit court shall render an order within twenty-five (25) days after the motion alleging ineffective assistance was filed or the motion shall be deemed denied.
On appeal, the district court will review claims regarding the parent’s appeal from the trial court’s TPR order and from the disposition of the ineffective assistance motion. This process will apply to any case in which a judgment terminating parental rights is entered after this case becomes final. Creation of the permanent process and development of the attendant rules will be the task of a special committee.
In this case, the Supreme Court determined, that the appellant failed to present any basis for setting aside the order terminating her parental rights and affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Case: S.V. v. D.C.F.
Court: Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Alan S. Fine.
Attorneys: Karla F. Perkins, Kele Stewart, Laura E. Lawson.
Issues: Dependency, Reunification.
Holding: A certiorari review of the trial court’s non-final order is limited to whether the trial court departed from the essential requirements of law in conducting its review of the general magistrate’s report and recommendations, resulting in irreparable harm to the petitioner that cannot be remedied on direct appeal.
In this case, the trial court did not err as it adhered to the essential requirements of law and applied the correct legal standards when it reviewed the general magistrate’s recommendations. Specifically, the trial court found that competent substantial evidence did not support the general magistrate’s finding that the Father, at this time, had the capacity to meet the children’s extensive and unremitting therapeutic needs. The appeals court denied the petition to review the lower court decision.
Case: Quinn v. Quinn
Court: Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: John A. Schaefer.
Attorneys: Ingrid Anderson.
Issues: Child Support, Equitable Distribution.
Holding: When a parenting plan provides that the children will spend a "substantial amount of time" with each parent, defined as at least twenty per cent of the overnights per year, the award of child support should be adjusted as set forth in Florida Statutes (2013), requiring calculation based in part on the percentage of overnights the children spend with each parent. While the statute presumptively establishes the amount of child support, the court may deviate from the presumptive amount based on numerous factors, including the obligee parent’s low income and ability to maintain the basic necessities of the home for the child, the likelihood that either parent will actually exercise the time-sharing schedule set forth in the parenting plan and whether all of the children are exercising the same time-sharing schedule. If the trial court wishes to deviate from the presumptive amount by more than five percent, the final judgment must include findings of fact to support the deviation and explain why the guidelines amount is unjust or inappropriate.
In this case, the trial court erred in ordering a number of overnights to each parent that contradicted those ordered in the parenting plan without explaining the discrepancy. This was an error on the face of the judgment requiring the appeals court to reverse and remand.
Case: Sikora v. Sikora
Court: Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Richard A. Nielsen.
Attorneys: Christine A. Hearn, Steven L. Brannock, Mark F. Baseman.
Issues: Alimony, Equitable Distribution, Imputation.
Holding: Permanent Periodic Alimony
Permanent periodic alimony is used to provide the needs and the necessities of life to a Former Spouse as they have been established by the marriage of the parties. Absent special circumstances, an alimony award should not exceed a Recipients Spouse's need (excessive awards constitute an abuse of discretion). In the absence of special circumstances, a trial court errs by awarding permanent, periodic alimony in an amount that exceeds a Former Spouse’s established needs. In this case, the trial court failed to include findings detailing any special circumstance that would explain why alimony was awarded in an amount exceeding the amount necessary to meet the Former Wife's need. The appeals court reversed and remanded for the trial court to either include such findings or reconsider the issue in its entirety.
Trial courts may impute income from interest earned on retirement accounts if the income is readily available to a Former Spouse without penalty and without the need to reduce the principal. However, any decision to impute income must be supported by competent, substantial evidence. In this case, the trial court erred by imputing income to the Former Wife from her retirement accounts where there was no evidence to support the specific rate of return used by the trial court. Nor was there an agreement of the experts on the rate of return for the retirement accounts or evidence of the historical rate of return. Rather, the trial court selected the same rate of return used for imputing income on the Former Wife's investment accounts. The appeals court remanded with directions to adjust the alimony award accordingly.
Generally, when a trial court awards alimony, it abuses its discretion if it fails to make the award retroactive to the date of filing the petition for dissolution. There is an exception where the trial court enters a temporary alimony award during the pendency of the case. In that situation, a retroactive award is limited to the date that the request for an increased award is filed. However, a temporary alimony award can be readdressed at a final hearing if the temporary award was made "without prejudice."
In this case, the parties stipulated that the Former Husband would pay temporary alimony, and the court awarded temporary alimony "without prejudice” such that the issue of temporary alimony could be readdressed at the final hearing. The appeals court ordered the reversal of the permanent, periodic alimony award, and on remand, directed the trial court reconsider the issue of retroactivity of any newly imposed permanent, periodic alimony award (after comparing such award to the stipulated temporary alimony).
A trial court must include findings relating to a Former Spouse’s insurability at the time of trial and the cost of an insurance policy. In this case the trial court erred when it ordered the Former Husband to secure an insurance policy in the absence of any explanation for how this amount was arrived at or what it was based on. Moreover, trial court's failure to explain how it arrived at the specific dollar requirement was troublesome because the specific amount of coverage bore no correlation to projected alimony amounts and it was not possible for the appeals court to ascertain if the trial court ordered life insurance for purposes other than securing alimony due at the time of the Former Husband's death.
Lump Sum Alimony
Courts have previously reversed lump sum alimony awards that have no evidentiary support. In this case, there was no evidence to justify the lump sum alimony award, and the trial court made no findings to explain its rationale. The appeals court reversed and remanded for the trial court to reconsider the award based on the evidence on the record.
Attributing Dissipated Assets as Part of Equitable Distribution
It is error to include assets in an equitable distribution scheme that have been diminished or dissipated during the dissolution proceedings. However, an exception to this general proposition exists when misconduct during the dissolution proceedings results in the dissipation of a marital asset. The misconduct necessary to support inclusion of dissipated assets in an equitable distribution scheme does not include mismanagement or simple squandering of marital assets in a manner of which the other spouse disapproves. Instead, to include a dissipated asset in the equitable distribution scheme, there must be evidence of the spending spouse's intentional dissipation or destruction of the asset, and the trial court must make a specific finding that the dissipation resulted from intentional misconduct.
n this case, the trial court erred failing to apply to the standard for attributing dissipated assets to a spouse in dissolution proceedings. Specifically, the trial court erred in attributing monies to the Former Wife in the equitable distribution in such a way that amounted to a sanction for failing to comply with a documenting requirement. The appeals court reversed the trial court's equitable distribution awards and remanded for further proceedings.
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