WHEN IS UNEQUAL DIVISION OF ASSETS AWARDED IN A FLORIDA DIVORCE?

A case involving the unequal distribution of marital assets was recently decided by the Florida Court of Appeal.  In a case captioned Chatten v. Chatten, the husband appealed a final judgment of dissolution of marriage that awarded the wife an unequal division of the parties’ marital assets.  The husband argued that the trial court improperly granted an unequal division of property and assets to the wife.  The Florida Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

In this case, the husband and wife owned two pieces of property.  The first piece of property was located in Battlefield, Missouri.  The second piece of property was a home in Vero Beach, Florida.  The wife contributed $30,000.00 to the down payment on the Florida home.  Additionally, the wife paid $11,000.00 to furnish the Vero Beach, Florida home.  Both of these payments came from funds that that the wife inherited.  Additionally, the wife used funds from her IRA to purchase the Missouri property.  Both properties had mortgages on them.  The mortgage on the Vero Beach home was significantly less than the mortgage on the Missouri property.

The trial court awarded the Vero Beach home to the wife, and awarded the Missouri property to the husband.  The trial court also ordered the wife to pay $40,000 to the husband.  This constituted an unequal division of the parties’ marital property in favor of the wife.  The husband received $95,373 in assets, and the wife received $216,606 in assets.  The trial court justified this award because the wife contributed to the purchase of the Vero Beach home.

The husband argued that the trial court made an improper unequal distribution of the parties’ marital assets.  The husband also argued that the wife’s contribution to the Vero Beach, Florida home was a gift to him.  The Florida Court of Appeal agreed with the husband’s argument. The Florida Court of Appeal ruled that the wife did not meet the burden of proof required to show that the property was nonmarital property.

The rationale for the Florida Court of Appeals’ ruling was as follows.  The Florida statutes state that in distributing marital assets in a divorce proceeding, the trial court should begin with the principle that the distribution of marital assets should be equal, unless there is a statutorily prescribed basis for an unequal distribution.  All real estate owned by the parties as tenants by the entireties, whether acquired during or prior to the marriage, is presumed to be marital property.  If a party claims that real estate that is owned by the parties as tenants by the entireties is nonmarital property, the burden of proof is placed upon that party to show that the property, or some part of it, is nonmarital.  The party claiming that the property is nonmarital, has the burden of overcoming the presumption that the distribution of marital property should be equal and proving that the contribution was not intended to be a gift.

Where a husband or wife makes a down payment on a marital home that is jointly owned, the contributing party must overcome the presumption that the payment was intended to be a gift.  Where a husband or wife uses funds that they receive from nonmarital sources to make a down payment on a home that is jointly titled, an unequal distribution is not appropriate unless the party making the contribution overcomes the presumption that the contribution was a marital gift.  Evidence that a party provided nonmarital proceeds to buy a marital home, in and of itself, does not prove that the contributing party did not intend to make a gift.

Where real estate is jointly titled, and the parties’ conduct during the course of the marriage indicated that they intended joint ownership of the property, the party claiming that a gift was not intended has the burden of proof to substantiate that claim. It does not matter how much each spouse contributed or how the monies were received.  Testimony that a down payment was made with nonmarital funds, in and of itself, is insufficient to overcome the presumption that a gift was intended.  An unequal distribution of assets is not justified where one of the parties uses funds that were inherited to buy a marital home, unless it can be explained how the decision to jointly title the property constitutes something other than a gift.

In the case at bar, the wife failed to overcome her burden to demonstrate that the funds that she contributed from her inheritance supported an unequal division of the parties’ assets.  Although she testified that the down payment came from her inheritance, she failed to offer proof that the funds were not a gift.

In this case, the Florida Court of Appeal ruled that the lower court made an award to the wife of an unequal distribution of marital property without providing a sufficient justification for this award.  The appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case back to the trial court to reconsider the distribution of the parties’ assets.  The Florida Court of Appeal also ruled that when the trial court reconsiders the equitable distribution of the parties’ assets, it may also consider whether an award of lump sum alimony is appropriate under the circumstances.

To speak with a West Palm Beach, Florida divorce attorney to discuss the division of property and assets in a divorce, contact the Lane Law Firm, P.A. at (561) 363-3400.

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