Court Of Appeals Upholds 50-50 Asset Division In Divorce Of Short Term Marriage

A recent ruling by the South Carolina Court Of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling that a 50-50 division of assets was appropriate in a “short term” marriage.

On April 8, 2015 the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that a 50-50 asset division in divorce cases can extend to “short term” marriages. Brown v Brown, Appellate Case No. 2013-001259. In a lengthy factual summary the court found that

Wife acknowledges—and we agree—that the parties’ eight-year marriage was not a long-term marriage. Despite this fact, we believe the family court acted within its well-fettered discretion in awarding Wife 49.60% of the marital estate. We find the circumstances of the parties’ marriage merit such an award as reflected by the family court’s thorough consideration of all the relevant factors from section 20-3- 620.

In arriving at this decision, the court relied upon the trial court’s detailed analysis of all of the statutory factors that must be considered in order to reach an equitable division of the assets acquired during the marriage. The key to understanding asset division in divorce in South Carolina is the word “equitable”.

Equitable means “dealing fairly and equally with all concerned”. I actually like most of factors in 20-3-620 as they require a court to look at the entire nature of the marriage, and not focus on one or two factors. For example, in the Brown matter, the fact that the marriage was “short term” and that husband made all of  the money that contributed to the acquisition of the marital estate were only 2 of the 15 factors, all of which needed to be considered and balanced together.

While in Brown it was not disputed that husband had contributed all of the cash to the marital estate, the court did a good job of balancing this against wife’s “indirect” contributions: “we do not find the greater financial contributions outcome determinative, particularly when Wife’s indirect contributions to the marriage far outweighed those of Husband”.

Often times, as is our predilection as Americans, we overemphasize the value of material things. One of the criteria a court is specifically required to consider in making an equitable division of marital assets is the “homemaker contribution” found in 20-3-620(3): “…the contribution of the spouse as homemaker; provided, that the court shall consider the quality of the contribution as well as its factual existence”.

The homemaker contribution is not as easy to prove as material contributions, for obvious reasons, but it needs to be done in order to give a spouse who is not making the cash an even chance before a judge. For example, think of all the things a homemaker does every day that can not be easily quantified on a bank statement or in a real estate appraisal: Waking the kids up in the morning, making breakfast for the family, coordinating car-pools to and from school, monitoring homework, laundry, scheduling family activities, cleaning, maintaining family finances, etc.

paper written several years ago attempts to measure the economic value of household production (the homemaker contribution), or work done in the home that includes childcare, cooking, shopping, housework, odd jobs, gardening, and schlepping around. It is estimated that these activities increase in household income by as much as 30%!

The attorney representing Ms. Brown clearly did an excellent job of presenting credible evidence to the trial court of his client’s non material contribution to the marital estate. Not only did this financially benefit Ms. Brown, it was also “equitable” as it dealt fairly with all concerned by considering all contributions made by both parties, whether tangible or intangible.

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