Will a court award spousal support of $12,000 a month to wife on top of a $2.5 million dollar equitable distribution award, when husband’s adultery was a significant, but not a primary cause of the end of the marriage?

Will a court award spousal support of $12,000 a month to wife on top of a $2.5 million dollar equitable distribution award, when husband’s adultery was a significant, but not a primary cause of the end of the marriage?

Yes, in the case of Gordon v. Gordon, Record No: 2038-16-02 (Va. App. 2017), where the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the Chesterfield County Circuit Court judge’s award of spousal support to wife in the amount of $12,000 a month, on top of a $2.5 million dollar equitable distribution award.  The husband and wife were married for twenty-seven years before separating.  One child was born of the marriage and the wife stopped working outside the home to take care of the child.  In the six years before the equitable distribution hearing, the husband earned between $360,000 to $900,000 per year as a financial advisor.  Nevertheless, the family lived well below its means on approximately $9,000 a month, and managed to amass marital assets of approximately $4.5 million dollars.

At trial, husband’s vocational expert testified that the wife was capable of making between $24,000 to $29,000 a year.  The husband’s financial advisor expert testified that wife could expect to receive $65,000 a year, after taxes, from a potential recovery of $1.5 million dollars in equitable distribution.  Wife’s expert witness CPA testified that wife would have to pay income taxes of $4,678 on spousal support of $15,000 a month.  The wife’s evidence showed monthly living expenses of $28,578, while husband’s evidence of wife’s expenses was only $5,867.

The trial court judge found that husband’s adultery was significant, but not the primary cause of the end of the marriage.  While the husband made the primarily monetary contributions to the family, the wife contributed to the accumulation of marital assets by agreeing to live below the couple’s substantial means and by taking care of their son and home.  The divorce judge awarded wife half the marital assets in the amount of $2.5 million dollars, plus $12,000 a month in spousal support and $35,000 for her attorney’s fees and costs.  The court did not impute income to the wife because of her long absence from the workforce, and would not consider income from her award of equitable distribution as she would have to deplete her share of marital assets while husband kept his.

On appeal, the Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the decisions of the trial court judge and denied wife’s request of attorney’s fees and costs for defending the appeal.  The court recognized that the standard of review on appeal for an award of spousal support was an abuse of discretion, citing Fox v. Fox, 61 Va. App. 185, 734 S.E.2d 662 (2012).  To overturn such a decision, the appellate court must find that it was plainly wrong or without evidence to support it, citing Robinson v. Robinson, 54 Va. App. 87, 675 S.E.2d 873 (2009).  While the wife has the burden of proof to support an award of support, Robbins v. Robbins, 48 Va. App. 466, 632 S.E.2d 615 (2004), the appellate court will view the evidence in the light most favorable to the wife.  The Duncan appellate opinion includes the following primer on the law of spousal support in Virginia:
“In fashioning an award of spousal support, a circuit court “must consider all the factors enumerated in Code § 20-107.1(E).” Fox, 61 Va. App. at 203, 734 S.E.2d at 671. Specifically, the court “shall consider the circumstances and factors which contributed to the dissolution of the marriage.” Code § 20-107.1(E). In addition, it is required to consider the parties’ needs, financial resources, standard of living during the marriage, ages, nonmonetary and monetary contributions to the well-being of the family, contributions to each other’s careers, property interests, and earning capacities. Id. Further, the court must take into account the duration of the marriage, equitable distribution of the marital property, and “[s]uch other factors . . . as are necessary to consider the equities between the parties.” Id. However, the court “is not ‘required to quantify or elaborate exactly what weight or consideration it has given’” each of the factors enumerated in Code § 20-107.1(E). Fox, 61 Va. App. at 203, 734 S.E.2d at 671 (quoting Woolley, 3 Va. App. at 345, 349 S.E.2d at 426). “Where [an] evidentiary foundation exists and the record discloses that the trial court has given consideration to each of the statutory factors, we will not disturb its determination as to spousal support on appeal.” Id. at 203-04, 734 S.E.2d at 671.”

In considering the equitable distribution award, the appellate court first pointed out the distinction between the considerations in equitable distribution and the considerations for spousal support, that spousal support requires a consideration of the equities between the parties and the standard of living established during the marriage while equitable distribution is concerned with the acquisition, growth and preservation of marital assets, citing Lightburn v. Lightburn, 22 Va. App. 612, 619, 472 S.E.2d 281, 284 (1996) and Robinson v. Robinson, 54 Va. App. 87, 92, 675 S.E.2d 873, 875 (2009).  Here, the trial court judge did consider the earnings from marital assets, but chose to reject the expert witnesses’ testimony because it would result in a depletion of wife’s marital assets while husband retained his.  How the judge chooses to weigh the evidence he considers is not properly the subject of an appeal.

Further, the appellate court noted that the trial court judge properly considered the factors in Virginia Code Section 20-107.1(E), including husband’s adultery which was significant but not the ultimate cause of the dissolution of the marriage.  The circuit court provided the reasoning and the factual basis for its award of spousal support.  As such, the record supported the judge’s factual findings and the judge did not abuse his discretion.  The judge was not plainly wrong in failing to impute income to the wife as he considered her earning capacity, but recognized her difficulty in obtaining meaningful employment after her absence from the job market.  The appellate court disregarded the husband’s argument that the award of spousal support was excessive relative to its finding of her monthly exceptions, as his misunderstanding that an award of spousal support is solely designed to maintain the spouse at her former standard of living during the marriage, citing Robinson and Miller v. Cox, 44 Va. App. 674, 685, 607 S.E.2d 126, 131 (2005).

The lesson of the Gordon case is that divorce trial judges have a great deal of discretion in Virginia, and you take your chances when you try a divorce case.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce lawyer or Glen Allen divorce lawyer James H. Wilson, Jr., to discuss your options and the best course of action.

Should adultery or some other fault ground for divorce in Virginia, determine the amount and duration of spousal support or alimony?

Should adultery or some other fault ground for divorce in Virginia, determine the amount and duration of spousal support or alimony?

The decision whether to award spousal support and the amount and duration of spousal support to be awarded are left to the judge’s discretion in Virginia.  The court is required, under §20-107.1(E), to consider the circumstances and factors which contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, specifically including adultery, conviction of a felony, cruelty, reasonable apprehension of bodily hurt, or willful desertion or abandonment.  This is a threshold determination that can affect whether a spouse is entitled to support, but that should not affect the duration or amount of support, which should be decided according to the factors numbered 1 through 13 in §20-107.1(E).  A judge must deny spousal support to the guilty spouse when the fault ground of adultery is proven, unless clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that the denial would result in a manifest injustice, as provided in Virginia Code Section 20-107.1(B).

The Virginia Court of Appeals addressed the relationship between fault and support in the unpublished case of Lothar W. Nass v. Arlene Wolin Nass, Record No. 1882-00-1 (April 10, 2001).  In Nass, the parties were married twenty years before separating.  No children were born of the marriage, or adopted.  The husband filed first for a divorce from bed and board under Virginia Code Section 20-95.  The wife filed a cross bill (now properly a counter-claim under Rule 3:9 of the Supreme Court of Virginia for divorce and equitable distribution, alleging cruelty and desertion by husband.  In Virginia, evidence in a divorce case can be presented directly to the court ore tenus or to a commissioner in chancery under Virginia Code Section 8.01-607, a quasi-judicial officer appointed by the court who can make findings of fact and report to the court, or, in some cases, though written or oral depositions.  In Nass, the commissioner found that husband was guilty of cruelty tantamount to constructive desertion and recommended a divorce a vinculo matrimonii or final divorce be entered in favor of the wife.  The husband objected to the commissioner’s report on the grounds that the parties had agreed, during the hearing, to proceed on a no-fault, one year separation, basis, as permitted by Virginia Code Section 20-121.02.  The Virginia Circuit Court overruled husband’s objection granted the wife a divorce on the grounds of desertion and denied husband’s request for spousal support.

On appeal, the Virginia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling with respect to the divorce based on constructive desertion, holding that the record demonstrated that husband had validly moved the court for a no-fault divorce under Section 20-121.02 and the evidence supported the relief he requested.  The Virginia Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial judge to enter a divorce based on living separate and apart for a year, instead of the fault ground of constructive desertion in favor of the wife.

With regard to spousal support, the appellate court first recognized that “[w]hether and how much spousal support will be awarded is a matter of discretion for the trial court”, citing Barker v. Barker, 27 Va. App. 519, 500 S.E.2d 240 (1998).  The Virginia Court of Appeals then noted that under Section 20-91(A)(9)(c), the entry of a no fault divorce decree does not lessen the obligation of either spouse to support his or her spouse, unless the spouse proves the existence of a fault ground in his or her favor.   The court further noted that the spousal support section, Section 20-107.1, did not specify how fault grounds were to be considered in making the threshold determination of whether spousal support would be appropriate.  If an award of spousal support were appropriate, then the trial court should consider the factors listed in Section 20-107.1(E).  In this case, the Virginia Court of Appeals found evidence in the record of husband’s egregious conduct toward wife, thus justifying the divorce court judge’s ruling that husband was not entitled to spousal support.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce lawyer concerning whether any fault grounds would prevent you or your spouse from obtaining spousal support.

 

Does a Virginia equitable distribution award to wife based on husband’s adultery, drinking, gambling and verbal abuse require a showing of adverse economic impact?

Does a Virginia equitable distribution award to wife based on husband’s adultery, drinking, gambling and verbal abuse require a showing of adverse economic impact?

Not in the case of Attiliis v. Attiliis,  where the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that husband’s drinking, adultery, gambling and verbal abuse constituted negative nonmonetary contributions to the well-being of the family entitling wife to a Virginia equitable distribution award of $65,000 without a showing of adverse economic impact , citing Watts v. Watts, 40 Va. App. 685, 581 S.E.2d 224 (2003) .

In Attiliis, the Virginia Court of Appeals addressed four equitable distribution decisions of the trial court: the distribution of a capital loss carry-forward tax credit; an order to maintain wife as a beneficiary on husband’s life insurance; an award to wife for waste, dissipation of assets, and negative non-monetary contributions; and a finding that husband’s adultery was the primary cause of the dissolution of the marriage.  The Virginia Court of Appeals first restated the rule that it will not reverse the divorce court’s discretion in fashioning an equitable distribution award unless it appears from the record that the divorce court abused its discretion, failed to consider or misapplied the factors in the equitable distribution statute, Virginia Code Section 20-107.3(E), or made essential fact findings unsupported by the evidence.

The Virginia Circuit Court in the Attillis case was reversed on its findings with respect to a $75,000 long-term capital loss carry forward and a $40,070 short-term capital loss carry forward as unsupported by the evidence at trial.  Although Wife had listed a $75,000 capital loss shown on tax returns as an asset on a list of assets in evidence, Wife offered just the couple’s 2005 tax return into evidence, which did not reveal the disputed $75,000 capital loss tax credit.  Further, Wife’s attorney did not cross-examine Husband with respect to the exact amount of the capital loss tax credit when he denied the $75,000 figure, and conceded in his closing argument that Wife was claiming half of a $37,070 capital loss carry forward.

The Circuit Court was also reversed on its ruling that husband was required to maintain wife as a beneficiary on his life insurance policy as without statutory support in Virginia Code Section 20-107.3(G)(2).  Although Virginia Code Section 20-108.1(D) allows a court to order a party to maintain an existing life insurance policy with a child as the beneficiary in a child support proceeding for the duration of a child support obligation, and Virginia Code Section 20-111.1 provides that an existing written contract with a revocable death benefit is revoked upon entry of a divorce decree, unless the parties’ contract or the divorce decree provides otherwise, nothing in the Virginia Code allows a judge to order a spouse to maintain life insurance for the other spouse’s benefit.

With respect to the divorce court’s findings and rulings on waste, dissipation of assets, and negative non-monetary contributions, the Virginia Court of Appeals first reversed the Circuit Court’s equitable distribution award for waste of a bank account following execution of the couple’s separation agreement because the award did not account for husband’s half interest in the wasted funds and thus was unsupported by the evidence.  The court next reversed the divorce court’s award of $50,000 for dissipation of assets as without supporting evidence because waste and dissipation of assets are the same thing and do not occur over the course of the marriage, but instead only while the marriage is undergoing an irreconciliable breakdown.  Finally, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the divorce court’s award of $65,000 for husband’s adultery, drinking and verbal abuse because the trial court’s considerations of non-monetary contributions to the well-being of the family do not require a showing of an adverse economic impact, as contended by Husband.

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that husband had waived his argument that the circuit court erred in ruling that Husband’s adultery was the primary cause of the dissolution of the marriage because Husband failed to cite legal authority in support of his argument in his appellate opening brief as required by Rule 5A:20 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce lawyer concerning the likely effects of spousal misbehavior on an equitable distribution award.

When a Virginia divorce is based on adultery, would it be a manifest injustice to deny spousal support to a wife who is still living with her paramour and their son?

When a Virginia divorce is based on adultery, would it be a manifest injustice to deny spousal support to a wife who is still living with her paramour and their son?

Not according to the City of Salem, Virginia, Circuit Court judge in the case of Carter v. Carter , Case No: CL09-524, who denied permanent spousal support or maintenance to the wife who was guilty of adultery and continued to live with her paramour and their child.  While the case does not directly concern bankruptcy law, it does highlight some of the financial repercussions of the fault ground of adultery in a Virginia divorce case.  Under Virginia Code Section 20-107.1, a Virginia divorce court judge shall not award permanent maintenance or support to a guilty spouse when the fault ground of adultery, sodomy or buggery committed outside the marriage exists, under Virginia Code Section 20-91(1), unless the denial of support and maintenance would constitute a manifest injustice, as shown by the higher civil burden of proof of clear and convincing evidence.  The divorce court trial judge would examine the respective degrees of fault during the marriage and the relative economic circumstances of the parties in determining whether such a manifest injustice would result from a denial of alimony or permanent spousal support.

In Carter, the couple were married for sixteen years and had seven children before separating.  The wife had worked prior to the marriage, but did not work outside the home after the marriage.  Both parties were deeply involved with their church and the wife had home schooled the children.  The evidence indicated that the husband abused his role as the spiritual head of the household (in accordance with the parties’ religious beliefs) by belittling his wife and treating her as a child, strictly limiting her budget and holding her accountable for all her spending.  The wife tired of the husband’s neglect and controlling treatment of her and withdrew from the marriage, concentrating on raising her children.  She contacted an old boyfriend through the internet and began going out at night to meet him.  The husband became even more controlling, taking the wife’s cell phone and her car keys from her.  The wife eventually left the marital residence to live with her paramour, with whom she had a child.

The Virginia Circuit Court judge appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the minor children of the parties in the custody dispute portion of the divorce case.  The report of the guardian ad litem reflected the different views of the husband and the wife toward the marriage, which the husband found fulfilling and the wife found stifling.  The Circuit Court judge held that the wife’s adultery was the legal fault for the divorce of the parties and a negative non-monetary contribution to the marriage.  While the trial judge noted that the adultery was the result of mental neglect, domination and control by the husband, he concluded that those factors did not authorize the adultery.  The judge found the wife to be the more credible party based on the parties’ testimony, but he nevertheless awarded physical custody of the minor children to the husband and denied permanent spousal support or maintenance to the wife.  In equitable distribution, the judge did award a higher portion of the equity in the marital residence to wife rather than husband.

In denying spousal support to the wife, the judge stated that he was bound by the dictates of §20-107.1 of the Code of Virginia, and concluded that no manifest injustice would result from a denial of alimony, without revealing the factual support for that conclusion.  Although the wife had stayed at home to take care of the children for the entire duration of the marriage, the judge did impute income to her at the minimum wage in calculating child support, indicating his belief that she could or should be working now.  The fact that she was still living with her paramour would suggest that she was not without support.  One could reasonable assume that as the judge concluded that the fault ultimately rested on wife’s adultery and her financial circumstances did not leave her destitute, it was not a manifest injustice to deny permanent spousal support to her.

You should discuss with your Virginia divorce lawyer or Richmond divorce lawyer James H. Wilson, Jr., whether the marital fault of adultery might result in a denial of permanent spousal support or alimony in your Virginia divorce case.

Will a separation agreement challenged as fraudulent and unconscionable be upheld in a Virginia divorce brought on grounds of adultery?

Will a separation agreement challenged as fraudulent and unconscionable be upheld in a Virginia divorce brought on grounds of adultery?

Not in the case of Derby v. Derby, 8 Va.App.19, 378 S.E.2d 74 (1989), where the Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s findings that the allegations of adultery were sufficient to support a divorce on those grounds and that the separation agreement should be set aside as invalid.

George and Sandra Derby were married on April 19, 1961, and during their twenty-two years of marriage, the parties had two children. On October 6, 1983, Mrs. Derby filed for divorce, claiming cruelty, and Mr. Derby filed a cross-bill alleging adultery on several specified occasions. Approximately ten months after filing for divorce, Mrs. Derby went to the beauty shop owned by both her and her husband. She brought a copy of a settlement agreement her lawyer had drafted, providing for equal distribution of the parties’ assets.  Mrs. Derby, however, called her husband into the parking lot. After a brief discussion, Mr. Derby signed the agreement with a revision granting Mrs. Derby the majority of the parties’ property assets, including all of the parties’ real property. Mr. Derby alleged he signed the agreement while under the impression that if he did so, Mrs. Derby would return to the family home.

In the lower court proceeding, the Court held that the private investigator’s findings of adultery were sufficient to grant a divorce on those grounds but held that the property settlement as invalid. Mrs. Derby challenged the invalidation, arguing that Mr. Derby did not demonstrate fraud, duress, or undue influence by clear and convincing evidence.  To determine whether this invalidation was proper, the Court examined Virginia Code §20-109.1, which states, “[A]ny court may affirm, ratify and incorporate by reference in its decree dissolving a marriage or decree of divorce whether from the bond of matrimony or from bed and board, any valid agreement between the parties.” At issue in this case was the question of validity, which the Court addresses prior to incorporation in the divorce decree unless otherwise uncontested by the parties. See Forrest v. Forrest, 3 Va.App.236, 349 S.E.2d 157 (1986).

The trial court held that the separation agreement should be declared invalid on the basis of constructive fraud. Constructive fraud requires, “[B]reach of legal or equitable duty which, irrespective of moral guilt, is declared by law to be fraudulent because of its tendency to deceive others or violate confidence.” Wells v. Weston, 229 Va. 72, 77, 326 S.E.2d 672, 275-6 (1985). Here, the lower court ruled that Mrs. Derby’s actions of hiding her adultery from her husband and having him sign the agreement knowing he was fostering ideas of her return constituted constructive fraud; however, the Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the fiduciary duty between the parties was severed by the separation and retention of attorneys, and, therefore, Mrs. Derby’s actions did not breach any duty. See Barnes v. Barnes, 231 Va. 39, 42, 340 S.E.2d 803, 804 (1986) (holding that when a husband and wife separate and employ attorneys, their former confidential and fiduciary relationship ends).

After examining the issue of fraud, the Court turned to whether the separation agreement should be set aside on the issue of unconscionability, which according to the Restatement, means the agreement “was such as no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest and fair man would accept on the other.  Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208 comment b.  In cases of unconscionability, the court examines whether the disparity of values exchanged and the process involved in the reaching of the agreement were such that one party signed at a severe personal detriment. Here, the Court ruled that the terms were so disproportionate and the means of acquiring Mr. Derby’s signature suggested that the contract was unconscionable and should be set aside. Moreover, the Court held that the misrepresentation of Mrs. Derby about her infidelity and her possible return to the marriage, coupled with her preying on Mr. Derby’s emotional weakness created a situation where it would be inequitable to uphold the agreement. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, although it established a different basis for its decision in regards to the separation agreement.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce lawyer concerning the possibility of setting aside your separation agreement.

 

Could a spouse accused of adultery in a Virginia divorce case be at a disadvantage by invoking his or her Fifth Amendment right?

Could a spouse accused of adultery in a Virginia divorce case be at a disadvantage by invoking his or her Fifth Amendment right?

The right to claim a 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in adultery cases has been severely limited with the recognition of a constitutional right, under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, to privacy protecting consensual sexual behavior between adults in private.  Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003);  Martin v. Ziherl, 269 Va. 35, 607 S.E.2d 367 (2005).  Nevertheless, there are instances in which an accused spouse may wish to invoke his or her right under the 5th Amendment.  In Virginia, the consequences of proving adultery are quite serious and may result in a spouse being denied spousal support. Where a spouse’s conduct is suspicious, courts will look to see if an explanation has been provided for the conduct. If no reason has been provided, courts will usually draw a negative inference. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed.) defines “negative inference” as: “a detrimental conclusion drawn by the fact-finder from a party’s failure to produce evidence that is within the party’s control.” To prevent a negative inference from being drawn should a spouse accused of adultery exercise his or her Fifth Amendment right?

Typically, a court cannot draw a negative inference from a spouse’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment. See Romero v. Colbow 27 Va. App. 88 at 93, 497 S.E. 2d 516 (1988).  However, it appears that despite the protection afforded by § 8.01-223.1, it is possible that a negative inference from exercising the Fifth Amendment can be drawn. In Watts v. Watts 40 Va. App. 865, 581 S.E. 2d 224 (2003)  this may be what the Court of Appeals did. In Watts, wife accused her husband of adultery. When deposed, husband invoked his Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer any questions about his new paramour. In a footnote, the court stated that they were “mak[ing] no negative inference” on his exercise of his Fifth Amendment right. However, having found substantial evidence of adultery, the court of Appeals made the following statement: “in doing so [invoking the privilege], husband failed to provide a reasonable explanation for his conduct, a matter about which we do take cognizance.”

Likewise, in Sparks vs. Sparks 768 S.W.2d 563 (1989), the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals held that a wife who invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege was not entitled to the affirmative relief of temporary maintenance and attorney’s fees in her divorce action. Another case that echoed this ruling is Robinson vs. Robinson 615 A.2d 1190 (1992), the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the court is entitled to draw a negative inference against the spouse who refuses to testify. In Robinson, the wife invoked her privilege and refused to answer a question regarding adultery which led the court to infer that she had indeed committed adultery.

A contrary result was reached in Romero v. Colbow 27 Va. 88, 497 S.E.2d 516 (1998), a divorce case where the wife invoked her privilege in connection with questions about adultery. The Court of Appeals upheld the commissioner in chancery’s finding that evidence was not “clear and convincing” to prove the wife had committed adultery, despite evidence of the contrary. The commissioner, relying on Virginia Code§ 8.01-223.1, had said that the wife’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment cannot be used against her.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce lawyer to determine if invoking the Fifth Amendment is available to you and in your best interest.

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In a Virginia divorce based on adultery, may judge award spousal support to wife despite her proven adultery and award of substantial property in equitable distribution?

In a Virginia divorce based on adultery, may judge award spousal support to wife despite her proven adultery and award of substantial property in equitable distribution?

Yes, if there is clear and convincing evidence that it would be a manifest injustice to deny spousal support under Virginia Code §20-107.1(B), as demonstrated in the recent unpublished case of Nowlakha v. Nowlakha, Record Number 2377-13-4, decided May 27, 2014 by the Court of Appeals of Virginia, on appeal from the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia.

In Nowlakha, the parties were married for more than twenty-four years before separating.  The husband operated a printing business which generated about $156,000 a year in income.  The wife was a stay at home mom, except for occasional assistance to her husband in the printing business.  The husband also earned $24,000 a year in rental income.  At the time of the final hearing on divorce, the husband was earning $15,000 a month and the wife was making $477 a month as a part-time clerk.  The Circuit Court judge awarded $5,000 a month in permanent spousal support to the wife, later amended downward to $4,000 a month, in spite of her adultery.

The husband discovered wife’s adultery when he found letters from her paramour to her in the marital residence.  After the confrontation over adultery, the wife moved out of the marital bedroom into a separate bedroom in the house.  The husband attempted a reconciliation with the wife and told her that he forgave her for the adultery.  Three months later, the husband filed for a divorce based on adultery.  Two months later, when she was served with the divorce papers, the wife left the marital residence.

At trial the wife introduced evidence that the husband had been controlling of her life, physically, sexually and verbally abusive toward her and secretive about his business during the marriage.  She maintained that the marriage had been deteriorating before her adulterous affair.  The wife admitted to two incidents of adultery after the husband and wife separated.

The trial court judge held that the husband did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that wife committed adultery prior to the separation, but did prove wife’s post-separation adultery.  The court awarded husband a divorce based on adultery, but found it would be a manifest injustice to deny spousal support to the wife, based on the respective fault of the parties and the relative economic circumstances of the parties.  The court found that the husband and wife were equally responsible for the dissolution of the marriage, and noted husband’s forgiveness of wife for her adultery.

The husband appealed the trial court’s decision on the grounds that the judge erred when she found a manifest injustice based on the respective fault and relative economic circumstances, and improperly considered husband’s forgiving wife for adultery.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Virginia noted that it would view the evidence in a light most favorable to the wife, the prevailing party at trial, citing one of its prior cases on manifest injustice, Congdon v. Congdon, 40 Va. App. 255, 578 S.E.2d 833 (2003).  Further, the appellate court recognized that the trial court judge’s decision to award wife spousal support in spite of her adultery would not be reversed on appeal unless clearly wrong or without evidence to support them, citing Rahbaran v. Rahbaran, 26 Va. App. 195, 494 S.E.2d 135 (1997) quoting Williams v. Williams, 14 Va. App. 217, 415 S.E.2d 252 (1992).   The Court of Appeals then recognized three components to Virginia Code Section 20-17.1(B) allowing an award of spousal support to a party guilty of adultery: (1) a clear and convincing evidentiary burden by the guilty party; (2) limited application to a case of manifest injustice; and (3) based exclusively on a consideration of the respective degree of fault and economic disparities of the parties, again citing Congdon v. Congdon, 40 Va. App. 255, 578 S.E.2d 833 (2003).

In this case, the trial court judge’s decision was not clearly wrong or without evidence to support.  On the issue of the respective degrees of fault, the judge found that the wife’s adultery was not the only cause of the dissolution of the marriage.  The trial court judge was not limited to the fault grounds alleged in the pleadings, but could properly consider all behavior affecting the marital relationship.  Barnes v. Barnes, 16 Va. App. 98, 428 S.E.2d 294 (1993). As such, there was evidence supporting the judge’s finding that the parties were equally at fault for the end of the marriage.

On the issue of the relative economic circumstances of the party, the trial court properly considered the parties’ incomes and earning capacities.  Although the wife received a large award of property, including a monetary award, from the husband in equitable distribution, the divorce court judge noted the property was not income producing and would still leave her unable to support herself.  Finally, the Circuit Court judge did not improperly consider a nonstatutory factor, as the husband’s forgiveness was relevant to the respective degrees of fault of the parties.  The trial court’s ruling was affirmed.

You should consult with your Virginia divorce attorney or Richmond divorce lawyer James H. Wilson, Jr., to discuss how adultery might affect the outcome of your divorce case.

Can a Virginia court find adultery for equitable distribution purposes in a divorce, but deny sufficient evidence of adultery for the divorce itself?

Can a Virginia court find adultery for equitable distribution purposes in a divorce, but deny sufficient evidence of adultery for the divorce itself?

Yes, in the case of Kidd v. Kidd, Record No: 2038-13-1, an unpublished memorandum opinion of the Virginia Court of Appeals issued on June 10, 2014, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s determination that the evidence did not establish adultery at the higher “clear and convincing” standard required for divorce, but did consider adultery, and condonation, at the lower standard of “reasonable jurists” in making factual determinations for equitable distribution purposes, which will stand unless the appellate court finds an abuse of discretion.

In Kidd, the parties had a long unstable marriage, which included five separations over twenty-eight years before the husband finally filed for a divorce based on wife’s adultery.  The wife filed a counterclaim for divorce based on desertion, or alternatively, on the one year separation of the parties.  The wife also claimed that any adultery had been condoned by the husband.

In the parties’ first four separations, the parties remained separated each time from 6 months to a year before reconciling.  The third and fourth separations were due to wife’s adulterous affair with the same paramour as the alleged adultery leading to the fifth separation.  After the fourth separation, the husband reconciled with the wife on the condition that she have no further contact with her paramour.  After the fourth reconciliation, the wife was diagnosed with cancer and received assistance for transportation to her treatments by the paramour, while the husband refused to care for her or drive her to medical appointments.  She and the paramour shared the same apartment during the last separation of each from his and her spouse.

At trial, the husband testified that his wife had admitted the most recent adultery to him. The paramour’s wife testified that her husband – the paramour – was having an intimate relationship with the wife, and that the wife had admitted to adultery to her, too.  The husband also testified that he had found the paramour erectile dysfunction (ED) medicine when he cleaned out the apartment where the wife and paramour had been living during the final separation.  The wife denied that she committed adultery with the paramour after the fourth reconciliation, stated that she had simply remained best friends with her paramour.  The wife testified that she and her paramour had separate bedrooms in the apartment they shared, and split the rent.  Further, the wife testified that after leaving the apartment she shared with the paramour, she went to live with her daughter and granddaughter, and parked her car at the paramour’s apartment at night so it would not get towed from the daughter’s apartment’s parking lot.

The trial court found that the evidence of adultery did not satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard, and particularly discounted the paramour’s wife’s testimony, which the court found “helpful or relevant”.  The trial court judge considered adultery while conducting equitable distribution, but found that any adultery did not affect the affect the equitable distribution award because of husband’s condonation.

The Virginia Court of Appeals first recognized the standards of review on appeal.  For the trial court’s fact finding, the appellate court would not reverse those findings unless clearly wrong or without evidence to support them, citing Hughes v. Hughes, 33 Va. App. 141, 531 S.E.2d 645 (2000).  The court noted that was particularly important here, where the court heard the parties’ evidence ore tenus, at a hearing in court in front of the judge, where he could observe their veracity and consider the appropriate weight of the evidence. Mayer v. Corso-Mayer, 62 Va. App. 713, 753 S.E.2d 263 (2014).  The legal standard for proving adultery rested upon the party alleging it, and the adultery must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Seemann v. Seemann, 233 Va. 290, 355 S.E.2d 884 (1987). Suspicious activity alone is not enough, even when strongly suspicious.  Painter v. Painter, 215 Va. 418, 211 S.E.2d 37 (1975).

 

In Kidd, the Court of Appeals would not upset the trial court’s findings when the evidence was ambiguous and could be interpreted to support the trial court’s decision.  The wife could have simply been in a close platonic relationship with her former paramour, who was helping her get through her cancer treatments by providing financial and emotional support.  The paramour’s wife could have been biased, based on her self-interest as the separated spouse of the paramour.  In addition, she never elaborated on the basis for her belief that the wife and her husband were in an intimate relationship.  The husband’s discovery of the ED medication could be explained by reasons other than adultery by the wife and the paramour.

 

The Court of Appeals noted that adultery could be judged by a different standard in equitable distribution.  While the burden of proof of adultery as a ground for divorce must meet the higher clear and convincing standard, ‘[i]n making factual determinations relevant to an equitable distribution award, a circuit court acts within its discretion as long as the evidence in the record would allow a reasonable jurist to reach the same conclusions.” Wright v. Wright, 61 Va. App. 432, 737 S.E.2d (2013).  “An abuse of discretion occurs only when “reasonable jurists” could not disagree as to the proper decision.” Hamad v. Hamad, 61 Va. App. 593, 739 S.E.2d 232 (2013).

 

In Kidd, the trial court judge found that the husband had condoned the wife’s adultery after the third and fourth separations by resuming marital relations with her.  The Virginia Court of Appeals defined condonation as “the remission, by one of the married parties, of an offense which he knows the other has committed against the marriage, on the condition of being continually afterward treated by the other with conjugal kindness”, citing Cutlip v. Cutlip, 8 Va. App. 618, 383 S.E.2d 273 (1989).  While condoned adultery could be revived if the guilty spouse resumed sexual intercourse with the paramour, here the husband failed to prove further adultery.

 

The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s award of spousal support and attorney’s fees, noting that the standard of review for spousal support was the same as that for equitable distribution: the award would stand unless it was an abuse of discretion.  The trial court properly considered the factors for awarding support in Virginia Code Section 20-107.1(E) .  The appellate court noted that the trial court had discretion as to how much weight to give each factor, citing O’Loughlin v. O’Loughlin, 20 Va. App. 522, 526, 458 S.E.2d 323,

325 (1995).  The trial court was within its discretion to accept the wife’s testimony that she was no longer living with the paramour, and therefore needed support, contrary to the husband’s allegations.  The lower court’s determination of the parties’ respective financial resources and needs was reasonable.  As such, the ruling on support or attorney’s fees was not an abuse of discretion and would not be reversed.

 

You should consult with your Virginia divorce attorney or Richmond divorce lawyer James H. Wilson, Jr., to discuss how allegations of adultery may affect the outcome of your divorce case.