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: Fosshage v. Fosshage
Court: Third District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Tegan Slaton.
Attorneys: Samuel J. Kaufman, Lawrence E. Harkenrider, Jiulio Margalli.
Issues: Time-sharing, Modification (Permanent Residence).
Holding: Under Florida Statutes (2013), there is a clear distinction between modification based on changed circumstances and modification based on relocation. A determination of parental responsibility, a parenting plan, or a time-sharing schedule may not be modified without a showing of a substantial, material, and unanticipated change in circumstances and a determination that the modification is in the best interests of the child. In determining whether a change in circumstances has occurred, a trial court must consider a statutorily enumerated list of factors. A petition for relocation, on the other hand, requires a different procedure with specific statutory requirements governing the content of the petition, service on the other parent, burdens of proof, and factors to be considered by the court.
In this case, the trial court erred in treating what was a petition for relocation as a change in circumstances and therefore did not adhere to or consider the correct process and factors. The appeals court reversed and remanded for the proper proceedings.
Case: Dravis v. Dravis
Court: Second District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Keith Spoto.
Attorneys: Jean Marie Henne, Shelley Harrell Shelton.
Issues: Marital Assets, Equitable Distribution.
Holding: Cash Gifts
An appeals court will review de novo a trial court's characterization of an asset as marital or nonmarital, and any factual findings necessary to make this legal conclusion, for competent, substantial evidence. Nonmarital assets may lose their nonmarital character where they have been commingled with marital assets. This is especially true with respect to money because money is fungible, and once commingled, loses its separate character. It is irrelevant that a bank account is titled in the name of one Former Spouse, alone, as it may become marital if both marital and nonmarital funds are commingled in that account. It is not necessary for commingled funds to be used to pay marital expenses in order to be treated as entirely marital; it is enough that the funds be commingled.
The appeals court reviews a trial court's equitable distribution decisions for abuse of discretion and examines its valuation of marital assets to determine whether it is supported by competent, substantial evidence. Generally, it is error to include in an equitable distribution scheme any assets that have been diminished or dissipated during the dissolution proceedings. The exception, however, is where misconduct during the divorce case results in the dissipation of a marital asset. To determine whether such misconduct occurred, the trial court must assess whether one spouse used marital funds for a purpose unrelated to the marriage at a time when the marriage was undergoing an irreconcilable breakdown. Further, such misconduct must be supported by the record evidence, and by specific factual findings of the trial court.
In this case, the trial court did not err in its determination as to misconduct and characterization of marital assets. The trial court did, however, err regarding the equitable distribution of the parties' marital assets. Competent, substantial evidence demonstrated that certain nonmarital assets (being the proceeds of monetary gifts to the Former Wife) were commingled with proceeds that were marital assets. The monetary gifts therefore lost their nonmarital character and became marital assets subject to equitable distribution. However, the trial court failed to make specific factual findings on the matter. This necessitated the reversal of the judgment on that issue. The appeals court affirmed as to the cash gifts and alimony, but reversed and remanded for further proceedings on equitable distribution.
Case: Dickson v. Dickson
Court: Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Mark J. Hill.
Attorneys: Nicholas A. Shannin, Lauren M. Ilvento, Barry P. Burnette, Matthew B. Capstraw
Holding: A trial court's order modifying a parenting plan and timesharing schedule is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. The trial court has less authority and discretion to modify timesharing than it does to make the initial timesharing determination. Under Florida Statutes (2013), relocation is a change in the location of the principal residence of a parent or other person from his or her principal place of residence at the time of the last order establishing or modifying time-sharing. Further, the change of location must be at least 50 miles from that residence. In the absence of a statutory or contractual provision to the contrary, the proper method to measure the distance between two points is the straight-line or “as the crow flies” measure. Under the principle of shared parental responsibility, major decisions affecting the welfare of a child are to be made after the parents confer and reach an agreement. If the parents reach an impasse, the dispute should be presented to the court for resolution whereby the court must resolve the impasse by determining the best interests of the child.
In this case, the trial court abused its discretion by modifying the timesharing agreement without evidence that the welfare of the minor child would be promoted by a return to the school the minor child had previously attended and modifying the timesharing arrangement so that the Father assumed the primary timesharing responsibilities. The Mother’s move did not violate the marital settlement agreement or the relocation statute. While the timesharing schedule largely met the statutory requirements, it did not include a school designation, and the marital settlement agreement did not expressly prohibit a move. Further, the parties agreed that the Mother moved forty-nine miles “as the crow flies,” using the straight-line test and was not required to file a petition to relocate. However, the dissolution final judgment gave the parties shared parental responsibility on major decisions, including educational matters. Because the parties were unable to agree on the minor child’s school, the Mother was required to obtain court approval before unilaterally changing the schools the minor child attended. The appeals court reversed and remanded with directions.
Case: Rossi v. Rossi
Court: Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Trial Judge: Kelly J. McKibben.
Attorneys: Joe Teague Caruso.
Issues: Equitable Distribution.
Holding: A trial court's determination that a motion or other filing is improper, as labelled, is a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Where it is apparent that an improperly-labelled motion is intended to operate as an authorized motion, an appellate court must consider the motion as if it were properly labelled. Where a party files a motion that would be unauthorized based on the motion's title, Florida courts will consider the motion's substance in determining whether the motion was authorized. The mislabelling of a motion will not preclude consideration. In this case, the trial court erred as it failed to consider the content of an improperly-labelled motion for rehearing and treated the motion as a list of exceptions. Specifically, the trial court found no issue with the substantive content of the Former Wife's list of exceptions. That finding necessarily implied that the substantive content of the motion for rehearing—which was identical to the list of exceptions was also sufficient. The trial court should have treated Former Wife's unauthorized motion for rehearing as an authorized list of exceptions and should have held a hearing on the magistrate's report. The appeals court reversed the trial court's entry of final judgment and remanded for a hearing on the Former Wife's list of exceptions to the magistrate's report.
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