The Court of Appeals in Murphy v. Murphy, defined what constitutes an equitable distributing of property that is changing in value.
The appellant had argued that the trial court had not property and timely assessed the value of the martial home before issuing a distribution order and during a divorce proceeding, namely that:
- A steep decline in value of the marital property before the court’s order of disposition prevented the distribution from being “equitable, just, and reasonable” as required by statute,
- The trial court erred in making its property distribution by failing to credit appellant for his mortgage payments, and
- The court erred in failing to address appellant’s request for attorney’s fees.
As statutorIly provided and established in the District, the trial court generally has a broad discretion in distributing property and its decision is based upon an assessment of the totality of the circumstances.
However, the distribution of assets and the process used must be equitable, just, and reasonable. Before distribution, there must be a fair, and just assessment of the value of the property – but more importantly — the valuation has to be current to issuance of the final decree of divorce and the distribution order.
That is, distribution of marital property requires a current valuation of assets in dispute. Moreover, there are circumstances in which the distribution of assets based on a stale valuations violates the provisions that the distribution be equitable, just and reasonable.
In another word, where more than an insubstantial period of time has elapsed between a trial and the entry of a court order valuing and distributing marital property, the trial court must reassess and revelation assets before the final order.
This requires proper valuation of the marital assets as close to distribution as possible so as to account for any market fluctuations that might have occurred in the interim.
Here, the trial court used property tax assessment statement as evidence of actual value and the property had significant devaluation from the assessment date, and when the final decree of divorce was issued, nearly nine months later.
The case was remanded to the trial for the trial court to reassess property value current to issuance of the divorce decree.
As with attorney’s fees, the DC Statute requires that during the pendency of an action for legal separation, and divorce spouse or domestic partner may be required to pay pendente lite alimony to the other spouse or domestic partner or be required to pay pendente lite:
- Child support,
- Health insurance coverage or
- Cash medical support, or
- Suit money, including counsel fees, to enable such other spouse to conduct the case.
Thus, on a case by case basis, during divorce litigation, the trial court may consider award of legal fees when appropriate and the award of legal fees or denial must be well documented.
Here, the trial court denied award of fees with no explanation on the record, and thus, the matter on this issue was also remanded for reconsideration.
Refer to our Family Law content for more detailed information on this topic.