September 9, 2005
Case Law Development: One Spouse's Sole Contribution Not Sufficient Justification for Failure to Divide Marital Property
In a 4-2 decision, the Arkansas Court of Appeals reverses (for the second time) a trial court's award of a retirement fund to the wage earning spouse from a 12-year marriage. The case presents a window into the stubborn influence of the historical source of funds approach to property division. Making the case even more interesting are the couple involved. Husband is 66 years old and Wife is 60. Husband was disabled when the couple married while wife worked as a nurse (though by the time of the divorce, she also was disabled). Wife's retirement funds when the couple were married were worth about $22,000. By the time of the divorce the retirement funds were worth over $240,000. The trial court awarded all of the retirement funds to wife, applying what appeared to be a source of funds analysis. (The court provides lengthy excerpts from the trial court's opinions, which include statements like "... the length of the marriage was twelve, almost thirteen years. I have been married thirty-four years. It doesn't seem extremely long.")
The court of appeals reversed, requiring the trial court to consider the equitable factors required by Arkansas statutes and to provide specific justifications for any division other than equal. On remand, the trial judge again awarded the entire fund to Wife.
The majority sees the trial court's justification as inadequate, emphasizing the strength of the presumption that equal is equitable and the importance of recognizing marriage as an economic partnership. The dissent would defer to the trial court's conclusions that Husband had not contributed to the marital estate and that the relative needs of the parties were such that an unequal division was warranted. Clearly, the trial judge will have to divide the retirement funds this time on remand. It remains to be seen whether any division other than equal could survive yet another appeal.
Baxley v. Baxley, 2005 Ark. App. LEXIS 562 (September 7, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://courts.state.ar.us/opinions/2005b/20050907/ca041131.html
(last visited 9/9/05 bgf)