The Court of Appeals on April 20, 2017, in Fleet v. Fleet; reversed and remanded the trial Judge’s ruling on division of marital property and award of portion of a retirement account.
Mr. Fleet specifically on appeal challenged the court‘s distribution of a portion of the marital home and Mr. Fleet‘s retirement account to his ex-wife, appellee Ericka Fleet.
He contended the trial court applied improper legal presumption of equal rather than equitable distribution of property in awarding 50 percent of the equity of the home to Ms. Fleet.
Mr. Fleet also argued on appeal that the trial court did not make any findings regarding the value of this asset, which was split 50/50, the home.
Regarding his retirement account, Mr. Fleet claimed that the trial court erred in awarding a portion of the account to Ms. Fleet as the account was not a joint account or deemed a marital property.
The trial court awarded ten percent of the account to Ms. Fleet, reasoning that “during the course of the parties separation and this litigation, [she] has been unable to save for her retirement, while Mr. Fleet has continued to contribute to his own retirement fund” – a reasoning that the Court of Appeals did not agree with.
D.C. Code § 16-910 which addresses division of property provides: each party is assigned his or her sole and separate property, and all other property the marital property is distributed in a manner that is equitable, just, and reasonable. In dividing marital property the trial court must engage in a conscientious weighing of all relevant factors, statutory or otherwise.
Mr. Fleet on appeal acknowledged that Ms. Feet’s name was added to the tile a week before the separation and thus the property was jointly owned/marital property subject to equitable division. However he argued that this modification of the title was an exit strategy by Ms. Fleet and the trial court did not property consider the motive and circumstances surrounding the modification of the deed.
Moreover, Mr. Fleet contended that the trial court erroneously made the legal title the dispositive factor when granting an equal interest in the home. That there is no presumption in favor of an equal distribution of property rather the court must divide the marital property in a manner that is equitable, just and reasonable, after considering all relevant factors.
The Court of Appeals found the trial record devoid of any evidence why equal distribution of the property was justified. Having both parties on the title of a property without more does not support a 50 percent split in the equity especially when the property was joint titled only a week before the separation.
The trial court record is also devoid of any mention of the value of the home. D.C. Code § 16-910 also in pertinent parts states that “in the absence of a[n] . . . agreement resolving all issues related to the property . . . , the court shall . . . value and distribute all marital property.” Distribution of marital property requires a fair valuation of assets being considered.
The Court of Appeals also found unjustified the ten percent award of the Mr. Fleet’s retirement account to Ms. Fleet.
As a general rule, retirement savings and benefits, to the extent acquired during the marriage or commingled with marital property, are property subject to equitable distribution and considered marital property. However, preexisting retirement funds brought into the marriage should be never classified as marital property without specific findings and evidence to the contrary.
The case was reversed and remanded for the trial court to reconsider its award of a fifty-percent stake of the equity in the marital home to Ms. Fleet and to fully set forth the reasons supporting its award.
The equal division of the home may be also an equitable division under the circumstances however the trial court‘s judgment should make clear that the court is not relying on a presumption of equal division and should cite specific findings and evidence supporting equal distribution.