Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce

How much does a Florida divorce court rely on expert testimony? In many cases, expert testimony is helpful in shedding light on complicated issues. The most common type of expert in a Florida divorce case is a forensic accountant. This type of expert usually testifies regarding equitable division of assets and debts in a marriage, and how much alimony should be awarded based on the incomes and spending of the parties. While an expert is helpful, the court must be careful not to rely solely on the expert’s testimony in reaching conclusions about the case, as illustrated in Tritschler v. Tritschler, 2D18-761 (Fla. 2d DCA June 7, 2019).

After a 13-year marriage, the wife filed for divorce seeking equitable distribution, alimony, child support and establishment of a parenting plan. After a hearing at which the wife’s forensic accountant testified, and a report by the accountant was entered into evidence which provided for an equitable distribution scheme, the court entered a final judgment that adopted most of the accountant’s findings, established a parenting plan and granted the wife permanent alimony. The husband appealed on several grounds.

First, the husband argued the equitable distribution scheme was not supported by evidence presented at trial and in some cases, contradicted other findings made by the court in its final judgment. The husband also argued that the court abused its discretion by using different valuation dates for different assets without explanation. The appellate court agreed with the husband on this point, holding “This combination of errors in the equitable distribution scheme has rendered it anything but equitable. It does not identify all of the parties' assets and liabilities as of the date of filing, it does not classify all of them as marital or nonmarital as of the filing date, and it does not value the marital assets and liabilities as of either a consistent date or inconsistent dates that are equitable under the circumstances. These errors have resulted in the trial court's counting the Wife's postfiling income as her nonmarital property while counting the Husband's postfiling income as marital. It has also resulted in the trial court distributing nonmarital assets as marital assets and "creating" marital assets that did not exist on the date of filing. And, as the Husband points out, it may have resulted in double-counting of certain assets.”

Next, the husband argued the trial court committed error because it relied on the parties’ gross incomes rather than their net incomes in determining alimony. He further argued it was error for the court to fail to identify the manner and and time for termination of the alimony. The appellate court agreed and reversed with instructions for the court to recalculate alimony based on the net incomes of the parties and to set the time and manner for termination of alimony.

Turning to child support, the husband took issue with the trial court’s failure to include a step-down calculation (meaning a reduction of child support as each child turned 18), and its failure to include in the calculation the amount of overnights each parent had. He also argued the trial court improperly assigned the cost of medical and dental insurance to him. On all points, the court agreed with the husband and reversed the child support award for recalculation.

As to the parenting plan, the husband argued the findings made regarding the same were not supported by evidence submitted at trial. On this point, the appellate court also agreed with the husband, holding, “The Husband is correct that the final judgment contains, in paragraph 26, factual findings that are not supported by any evidence admitted at the hearing or during the children's in camera testimony. It is unclear where these findings came from given the utter lack of any testimony at all concerning the incident in question; however, given that the final judgment contains extensive factual findings concerning the Wife's breast cancer treatment that are also not based on evidence presented at the hearing, we suspect that the findings came from the Wife's proposed final judgment. Notably, the Wife does not contend that the factual findings that allegedly support the parenting plan are supported by evidence presented at the hearing. Therefore, on remand, these factual findings should be stricken. The Husband seems to contend that the trial court must have impermissibly considered these factual findings in reaching its decision concerning the parenting plan, but he does not ask for the parenting plan itself to be reversed. Further, given that the child at issue is no longer a minor, any such relief would be moot. Accordingly, while the unsupported factual findings concerning the Husband's interaction with the parties' older child must be stricken from the final judgment, we need not reverse the parenting plan.”

The appellate court concluded its opinion with the following guidance for trial courts: “As this case demonstrates, trial courts must remember that while a party's expert may aspire to be above favoring their employer, they rarely succeed. Trial courts must also remember that expert witnesses are rarely well-versed in the court's statutory obligations and so their reports may not provide information suitable for the trial court to adopt. For both of these reasons, trial courts must ensure that they are examining all of the evidence presented by the parties rather than relying solely on that provided by one party's expert. For their part, attorneys have an obligation to introduce the evidence that the court needs to discharge its duties, and they should be cautious about expecting an expert to prove their case for them. Rarely, if ever, will it be appropriate for a trial court to simply adopt one party's expert report as its own.”

This case demonstrates why it is important to have a Miami divorce lawyer on your side protecting your best interest. It is possible for courts to make mistakes, and in order to fix those mistakes, a party must take all steps necessary to protect his or her appellate rights. Start with a consultation with a Miami divorce attorney to set yourself on the right path in your case.