March 7, 2016

What Is It, How Much Is It Worth, and Who Gets It?: Fourth DCA Reverses Final Judgment of Dissolution for Failure to Include Required Findings as to Equitable Distribution

Joseph W. Pierre v. Marie C. Pierre,
Case No. 4D14-1651 (Fla. 4th DCA, February 24, 2016)*

Florida law requires that certain trial court rulings in family court cases, such as those on equitable distribution and alimony, must be supported with specific written findings. The written findings allow an appeals court to review the trial court’s decision. The Fourth District Court of Appeal recently reversed a trial court’s equitable distribution of marital property in a dissolution of marriage proceeding. The case illustrates the importance of the requirement that the trial court include specific written findings in support of equitable distribution in a final judgment of dissolution of marriage.

The wife filed for dissolution of marriage, and requested that the trial court equitably divide the parties’ marital assets and liabilities. The husband failed to respond to discovery requests, and the trial court struck his pleadings and entered a default against him. The husband also failed to attend the final hearing. The wife testified at the final hearing about the value of the parties’ property and how the property should be equitably divided. The trial court rendered a final judgment that awarded the wife a vehicle and the husband’s interest in the marital residence, allowed each party to keep their own retirement savings, and made each party responsible for the party’s own credit card debt.

On appeal, the husband asked the Fourth DCA to reverse because the trial court did not make specific written findings as to the values of the parties’ assets and liabilities. The Fourth DCA noted that section 61.075(3), Fla. Stat. requires a trial court to support an equitable distribution with factual findings based upon the evidence, and that the distribution must include specific written findings of fact as to the identification of assets, the individual valuation of significant assets, and the designation of which spouse is entitled to each asset. The Fourth DCA concluded that, without the required findings, it was “unable to determine whether a reasonable person could conclude that the trial court’s disposition of assets and liabilities was not arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable.” The Fourth DCA reversed for the trial court to make the required written findings.

Here, the Fourth DCA stated that it would normally apply the “abuse of discretion” standard to the trial court’s equitable distribution ruling. However, the Fourth DCA could not review the decision at all without the required findings as to the assets and liabilities. The trial court’s order on equitable distribution may have been entirely reasonable, and appears to have been supported by the wife’s testimony. But the lack of written findings in the final judgment supporting the trial court’s decision required that the case be sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. The case may end up right back before the appellate court after the trial court makes its findings. The additional time, labor, and expense of further proceedings serve as a strong incentive for attorneys to ensure that all required trial court findings are included in any order entered in their client’s favor.

* The decision is not final until disposition of any timely filed motions for rehearing.