When an appeals court gets a divorce ruling wrong

December 5, 2017

The ability to appeal a lower court's ruling is an important mechanism in the U.S. legal system. Especially in disputes concerning divorce, where individuals' assets and relationships are at stake, it is crucial that legal outcomes are fair and just - and appeals courts are often a means of ensuring exactly that.


At times, however, the appellate court itself makes an errant ruling. When it does so, divorces become even more complicated -- even messier -- than usual. One such case occurred recently in Florida. It concerned a couple of high net worth, whose assets were under dispute. In fact, the spouses had taken measures to protect themselves in the event of a divorce, having signed a prenuptial agreement that stipulated who would get what if the couple parted ways. Unfortunately, the agreement didn't delineate what would happen to the home in which the couple had raised their family.


A house divided

The husband purchased the family home with premarital and non-marital funds. The wife's name was not on the deed. As such, it would seem that the house qualified as premarital property -- the husband's property, and protected by the prenup.


The trial court disagreed. Essentially, because the spouses had treated the house as joint property during their marriage -- because they had lived in and brought up their children in it -- it should be treated as joint property and as such, ruled the judge, be subject to asset division. Specifically, the trial court deemed that the home (as well as another property) was an interspousal gift -- a gift that can, in effect, turn one spouse's asset into shared property.


The husband, believing the property was still solely his, appealed the trial court's decision. His appeal was successful, but only briefly. The wife appealed the appeal, taking the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which reinstated the trial court's ruling.


The question remains: why, exactly, did the case turn out as it did?


Preponderance of evidence vs. competent and substantial evidence


The see-saw of decisions hinged on how each court considered the evidence at hand. The trial court approached the case using the standard of competent and substantial evidence. What this means is that the trial court received relebant evidence to support its conclusions. The trial court considered the couple's joint use of the house -- they had lived in it together and raised children in it together -- as a basis for concluding that it was, therefore, joint property. A rather commonsensical take.


The appellate court, meanwhile, used the preponderance of evidence standard. This might be thought of as a tug-of-war standard, where the ruling will favor whichever party produces the most convincing evidence or the greater weight of the evidence. Apparently, the court believed that the husband's ownership and title to the home superseded the couple's joint use of it.

The Florida Supreme Court, meanwhile, ultimately sided with the trial court, deeming that the matter was most fairly settled by means of the competent and substantial standard.


An outsider may view the case as at once confusing and promising. While it may be disconcerting that an appeals court doesn't always get things right, it is heartening to see that, in our legal system, there is a means to appeal the appeals.






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