Last month the Supreme Court of South Carolina in Crossland v Crossland clarified the criteria that the Family Court must consider when ruling on alimony and property division issues.
Mr. Crossland had been retired for over 20 years at the time of his marriage to Mrs. Crossland in 1997. Just 9 years later the Crosslands separated after living very frugally in Mr. Crossland’s separate, pre-marital residence, and living off of his income from his retirement, social security benefits and disability income. Mrs. Crossland had only worked 2 short term jobs during the marriage.
The evidence at trial established that neither party expected Mrs. Crossland to make significant financial contributions to the marriage with Wife assuming the traditional homemaker role. At trial, Wife testified that was eligible for early retirement benefits but chose not to take them. Husband wanted Wife to be imputed this potential income in order to offset his alimony obligation to her. The court refused to impute income to Mrs. Crossland simply because she was eligible to recieve retirement benefits.
The Supreme Court reasoned:
“… voluntary decreases in income may prompt a family court to consider a party’s earning capacity instead of actual income, it is clear that the failure to reach earning capacity, by itself, does not automatically equate to voluntary underemployment such that income must be imputed. Kelley v. Kelley, 324 S.C. 481, 488–89, 477 S.E.2d 727, 731 (Ct. App. 1996).”
Mr. Crossland also was requesting that his Wife receive the bare minimum of their cash assets as almost all of the cash was obtained by Mr. Crossland prior to the marriage. The court ruled that financial contributions must be given no more weight than all other contributions to a marriage.
The court reasoned:
“[w]hile there is certainly no recognized presumption in favor of a fifty-fifty division, we approve equal division as an appropriate starting point for a family court judge attempting to divide an estate of a long-term marriage.” Doe v. Doe, 370 S.C. 206, 634 S.E.2d 51 (2006). The purpose of the general fifty-fifty division is to protect the non-working spouse who undertook the household duties, and to prevent an award “solely based on the parties’ direct financial contributions.” Avery v. Avery, 370 S.C. 304, 634 S.E.2d 668 (Ct. App. 2006).
This case is important because the court clearly recognized and affirmed the role of both people in a marriage partnership as being of equal importance, regardless of the nature of their contributions. A traditional homemaker’s role is in no way less important in the eyes of our courts than that of a high income earning spouse.
This case is also important because the Supreme Court re-stated it’s general rule regarding property division; once the trial court has determined that property is “marital” in nature, the court is required to start with a 50-50 presumption regarding the property division. The contributions of a party to a marriage, financial or otherwise, are entitled to equal weight.
The Crossland case requires a spouse who has made a significant non financial contribution to a marriage to be very precise when presenting to the court the nature of those contributions and and their importance. It is then the responsibility of a family law attorney to carefully prepare and present this evidence to the court so that all of the contributions of both parties to the marriage partnership can be equally considered.