Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Michigan case law update

Recently, there have been two interesting opinions to come down from the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The first case, Woodington v Shokoohi, COA No. 288923, is a published opinion (a rarity in Michigan family law) and was filed on May 4, 2010. There were several issues before the court in this case. One notable issue deals with business records. Husband, an ophthalmologist, contended that he was merely an employee of his brother's medical practice, not part-owner (as he had represented himself and as his income had reflected in the past). Wife attempted to subpoena the business records to determine Husband's ownership interests, but her request was denied by the trial court (as the court deemed those records not necessary to determining Husband's income). However, Wife had a different reason for wanting to examine the records as it was believed that Husband was trying to hide his ownership interest in the business, which would be part of the marital estate. The Court of Appeals has agreed with Wife and has overturned this portion of the trial court's ruling, allowing Wife to now obtain these business records as they are certainly relevant and may lead to a different outcome in regard to Defendant's interest in the practice as a marital asset.

Also at issue was the award of alimony to Wife. She was ultimately awarded alimony in gross versus spousal support. Wife was awarded $55,000 per year ($4,600 per month) for six years. Wife appealed this issue as she contends that instead of an award of spousal support, she was given alimony in gross, which is essentially a division of property. The Court of Appeals sent this issue back to the trial court for clarification on why the trial court thought an award of this type was appropriate in this case.

Why would Wife want this trial court ruling to be overturned? Because if she receives alimony in gross, it is nonmodifiable later because it is deemed a division of property. Generally, property divisions are final once the divorce is final. On the other hand, an award of spousal support is generally modifiable later if proper circumstances exist.

In Woodington, there were also issues regarding attorney fees and a prenuptial agreement that was deemed invalid by the trial court due to the fact that it did not apply to divorce. The Court determined that when a prenuptial agreement is ambiguous, it should be construed against the drafter (Husband in this case) to determine intent. Read the full opinion here.

Under Michigan law, specifically the case of Berger v Berger, 227 Mich App 700 (2008), the purpose of spousal support is to balance the needs of the parties in a way that is reasonable and just under the circumstances, without impoverishing the other party. When determining spousal support, there are many factors that the court should consider including (1) the past relations and conduct of the parties, (2) the length of the marriage, (3) the ability of the parties to work, (4) the source and amount of property awarded to the parties, (5) the parties' ages, (6) the abilities of the parties to pay support, (7) the present situation of the parties, (8) the needs of the parties, (9) the parties' health, (10) the parties prior standard of living and whether either is responsible for the support of others, (11) contributions of the parties to the joint estate, (12) a party's fault in causing divorce, (13) the effect of contribution on a party's financial status, and (14) general principles of equity. See Berger at 726-727.

The second case, Guerra v Guerra, COA No. 288523, is significant in that the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's ruling that Husband's pension from GM not be split evenly between the parties (which goes against the general rule in Michigan). The parties married in 1964 and divorced in 2008. However, it was determined that Wife abandoned the family in 1994 (and also had an affair) and the parties stopped living as man and wife at that time even though they were technically still married. Because of this fact, it was ordered that the value of Husband's pension up until 1994 be equally divided while the remaining portion of his pension (from 1994 to 2008) be awarded to him in full. In Michigan, at the time of divorce, the goal is to equitably distribute the marital property in light of all the circumstances. See Berger at 716-717.

No comments: