Playing Cat and Mouse Games Can Cost

January 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

Most chancellors get testy when a party plays coy with financial information that is needed to decide a case. It usually happens in discovery where a party with financial assets gets vague with requests for information about account balances and the like. A recent case illustrates how that kind of tactic can cost a party dearly.

Julia and Steven Dauenhauer consented to a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences and left it to the chancellor to distribute the marital estate. Julia had some retirement accounts, but in discovery she did not produce statements and at trial she did not list all of them and their values on her 8.05. When the chancellor included them in the marital estate, Julia first filed a motion to “reconsider,” which was treated as a R60 motion because it was filed later than ten days after entry of the judgment. When she proved to be unsuccessful in that endeavor, she appealed claiming the accounts  were separate property.

In the case of Dauenhauer v. Dauenhauer, decided November 13, 2018, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s ruling on the point. Judge Carlton wrote the unanimous opinion:

¶36. Julia next argues that the chancellor erred in classifying the following as marital property: (1) the money she withdrew from her PERS retirement account and (2) the contributions she made to her Empower 401K after the entry of the order for separate maintenance.

¶37. This Court employs a limited standard when reviewing a chancellor’s division and distribution of property in a divorce. Phillips v. Phillips, 904 So. 2d 999, 1001 (¶8) (Miss. 2004). “This Court will not disturb the findings of a chancellor unless the chancellor was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or an erroneous legal standard was applied.” Id. Upon review, we examine the chancellor’s application of the Ferguson factors. Id. In so doing, we do not conduct a new Ferguson analysis; rather, we “review[ ] the judgment to ensure that the chancellor followed the appropriate standards and did not abuse his discretion.” Id.

¶38. Furthermore, “the party arguing to classify an asset as nonmarital property has the burden to demonstrate to the court the asset’s nonmarital character.” Wheat v. Wheat, 37 So. 3d 632, 640 (¶26) (Miss. 2010). The supreme court explained that meeting this burden requires going “beyond a mere demonstration that the asset was acquired prior to marriage.” Id. [My emphasis]

¶39. Julia explains that the $56,484.90 “withdrawals from retirement” listed in the Schedule of Marital Assets represents a PERS retirement account in the amount of $46,732.68 and a Great-West Retirement Services account in the amount of $9,752.22. In his judgment, the chancellor included a footnote explaining that the “total of the funds Julia withdrew from her retirement accounts is also a marital asset subject to equitable distribution.” However, Julia argues that she testified at trial that her PERS retirement was “originally acquired when [she] was divorced” from Steven the first time. Julia admitted at trial that contributions to the account had been made during their second marriage, but she now maintains that a portion of the total value of her PERS retirement account should be considered separate property.

¶40. At trial, the record shows that during cross examination, Steven’s attorney questioned Julia about whether she provided a statement showing the value of the PERS account on the date of her 2003 marriage to Steven. Julia responded that she was not requested to produce such a document. Steven’s attorney responded, “Well, ma’am, I definitely requested it in request of production documents, and you didn’t produce them, and I’m going to go through that.” The record shows that on her Rule 8.05 financial declaration, Julia attached a W-2 form indicating the value of the PERS account amounted to $46,732.68 when she cashed it out in 2015.

¶41. Regarding the $17,000 in her Empower 401K account, Julia asserts that the majority of the value of the Empower account constituted separate property. The chancellor’s judgment reflects that he divided the assets in the Empower account equally between the parties. In so doing, the chancellor also provided that “Julia voluntarily contributes approximately twenty percent of her income from West Jefferson [Medical Center] to her 401K retirement account.” Julia asserts that the three trial exhibits, including two of her pay stubs from April 2016, which the chancellor referenced as support for that amount, do not reflect contributions of twenty percent. Rather, Julia argues that her April 2016 pay stubs show that she only contributed fifteen percent of her monthly income to the account. Julia further submits that her contributions made to the account after the order for separate maintenance should be classified as separate property.

¶42. Steven argues, however, that Julia failed to produce a statement for the Empower account, despite being requested to do so in discovery. The trial testimony reflects that Steven’s attorney asked Julia if she had a pension plan. Julia responded, “Yes, I do.” Steven’s attorney asked, “But you didn’t put it on [your Rule 8.05 financial statement]?” Julia answered, “Correct.” Julia testified, however, that she started accumulating funds in
her Empower account in 2014.

¶43. Our review shows that the chancellor set forth the following findings with regard to Julia’s retirement account and Empower account:

Julia voluntarily contributes approximately twenty percent of her income from West Jefferson to her 401K retirement account.

. . . .

Prior to the separation, Julia purchased a home located at 209 Blue Heron Cove, Waveland, MS 39567, as well as a 2015 Mazda. When Julia purchased this home, she used $9,752.22 of her retirement funds from West Jefferson Medical Center to pay off the loan for the Honda Ridgeline. (See Exhibit 14, Page 10). Julia testified that she cashed in additional retirement savings in the amount of $46,732.68 and used these funds to purchase various items and appliances for her new home. (See Exhibit 14, page 8). Through post trial submissions, Julia has detailed how she spent $43,855.23 or this withdrawal.

¶44. The chancellor then performed a Ferguson analysis and found that “no non-marital property” existed. Under the factor of “the income and earning capacity of each party,” the chancellor made the following determination regarding Julia’s retirement accounts:

Both Steven and Julia have advanced degrees and therefore an ability to earn. However, because Steven has stated the desire to return to school to earn a teaching license, and Julia is currently working as a nurse practitioner, Julia’s current earning capacity is much higher than Steven’s. Julia also has the income and funds available to voluntarily contribute twenty percent (20%) of her income from West Jefferson to her retirement. This contribution is significantly more than required, and a much greater than Steven is saving towards his retirement through his PERS account.

¶45. Next, the chancellor set forth a schedule distributing the marital assets. Under Julia’s assets, the chancellor listed the $56,484.90 from the withdrawals from retirement as well as $8,500, which constituted one-half of her Empower account. The chancellor awarded Steven one-half of Julia’s Empower account, amounting to $8,500.

¶46. As stated, Julia bore the “the burden to demonstrate to the court [an] asset’s nonmarital character[,]” which requires going “beyond a mere demonstration that the asset was acquired prior to marriage.” Wheat, 37 So. 3d at 640 (¶26). Julia admitted that she did not produce a statement for her Empower account in discovery, nor did she produce a statement showing the value of the PERS account on the date of her 2003 marriage to Steven. Therefore we cannot say that the chancellor abused his discretion in classifying as marital property the money Julia withdrew from her PERS retirement account and the contributions she made to her Empower 401K after the entry of the order for separate maintenance.

So when you leave it up to the judge to make her best guess about the information you didn’t make clear in the record, you get what you get. If that gap in the record comes about from a cat-and-mouse strategy of non-disclosure, it can bite your client in a most sensitive and painful part of the anatomy.

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