Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce

Marriages that end in divorce after decades usually involve substantial assets and an alimony claim. Such was the case in Dorsey v. Dorsey, 1D17-5375 (Fla. 1st DCA 2019). Both parties appealed aspects of the trial court’s final judgment concerning equitable distribution, alimony, child support and attorneys’ fees. Many of the issues appealed allow for judicial discretion, which means the trial court has a choice in choosing between certain remedies for parties.

The parties were married for 23 years and had two children. They owned seven residential properties, three businesses and multiple vehicles. The wife worked for one of the businesses off and on doing administrative and clerical work. After a trial, the court divided the property among the parties and ordered the husband to pay an equalizing debt to the wife since he was keeping a majority of the assets. The wife was awarded $2,000 per month in permanent alimony.

As to equitable distribution, the appellate court generally held, “Without asserting that these challenged aspects of the equitable distribution scheme make the overall apportionment unequal, both parties invite piecemeal review of the trial court's distribution scheme. This court is prohibited from engaging in a piecemeal approach and may reverse only upon a showing that "the judgment entered by the trial court, when taken as a whole, constituted an abuse of the trial court's discretion.”

Even if the court were to review the party’s complaints piecemeal, the court noted the husband took issue with the trial court’s decision to assign to him the debts of the businesses he received. In dismissing this argument, the appellate court held in pertinent part, “[F]ormer Husband failed to establish an abuse of the trial court's discretion in the distribution of $87,500 as business debt "associated with" the second business distributed to Former Husband, Collins Mill Creek, LLC. Even if this distribution of debt rendered the equitable distribution scheme unequal — which Former Husband did not assert, and we do not find apparent from this record — such unequal distribution is authorized by section 61.075(1)(g), Florida Statutes. Where one spouse incurred a business debt, and the other spouse was not actively involved in the business, distribution of that debt to the managing spouse is within the trial court's discretion.”

Turning to alimony, the former husband disputed the trial court’s decision to impute minimum wage to the former wife where he presented evidence she earned much more than that working for the marital businesses. However, the appellate court noted minimum wage imputation was appropriate where the husband now owned the businesses solely (and therefore the wife could not continue employment there) and the evidence showed her employment at the business even during the marriage was sporadic. The wife cross appealed that the amount of alimony was insufficient. In dismissing this argument, the appellate court held: “However, Former Wife's general assertion that the alimony award is inadequate fails to establish unreasonableness amounting to an abuse of discretion in the overall financial settlement of the marital assets, alimony, and child support.”

As to child support, the parties agreed the court erred in using gross income to determine child support. Therefore, the child support provision was reversed. The parties also raised an issue with the court’s treatment of the children’s private school tuition in the child support scheme: “Former Husband asserts that the trial court abused its discretion by requiring him to continue to pay for private school for the older child and by failing to make a finding for the tuition rate on the worksheet. Former Wife argues that based on Former Husband's ability to pay and the living standard of the family during the marriage, the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Former Husband to discontinue paying private school tuition for the younger child and by giving Former Husband the option to discontinue the older child's tuition "[i]f the parties determine that it is not financially feasible or desirable to have either child in private school." The appellate court upheld the final judgment in this respect, holding that because the parties were awarded shared parental responsibility and the parenting plan “reiterates the decision-making power of the parents by providing for agreement of the parties to send the younger child to private school or to determine that it is not financially feasible to ‘have either child in private school,’” the appellate court found no abuse of discretion.

As an issue related to alimony and child support, the former husband appealed the trial court’s refusal to delineate temporary support he was ordered to pay. Instead of assigning a portion of it as child support and another portion as alimony, the trial court ordered one amount without specifying how much of it was for alimony or child support. The former husband argued delineation was necessary for tax purposes and based on prior case law, the appellate court agreed.

Finally, life insurance and attorneys’ fees were appealed by both parties. The husband appealed the requirement that he obtain a significant life insurance policy to secure his alimony and child support obligations. Because the court did not make findings as to the availability, cost, the husband’s ability to pay and special circumstances that would justify the husband having to maintain insurance, the appellate court reversed the ruling. Similarly, as to attorneys’ fees, the final judgment was reversed for lack of findings regarding the amount of fees awarded to the wife.

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