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Cook v. Coburn

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 2, 2014

Susan A. Cook
David A. Coburn

Editorial Note:

This Opinion is subject to motion for reargument or formal revision before publication. See V.R.A.P. 40

On Appeal from Superior Court, Rutland Unit, Family Division. Nancy Corsones, J.

John J. Welch, Jr., Rutland, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Kristina L. Pollard, Rutland, for Defendant-Appellant.

Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Crawford, JJ.


Reiber, C.J.

[¶1] Husband appeals from the trial court's final divorce order. He argues that the court erred by including certain items as part of the marital estate, awarding wife a disproportionate share of the marital estate, and failing to award him maintenance. We reverse and remand for additional proceedings.

[¶2] The parties married in December 1997 and separated in March 2010. They have a daughter who was born in July 1999. In January 2013, following a six-day hearing, the court issued its final divorce order. It found as follows: Wife is forty-eight, husband is fifty-five. The parties met in 1996 when wife hired husband to build a ten-stall addition onto her barn. Wife had started a horse stabling and training business several years earlier known as Horse Amour. Husband later moved in with wife. The Horse Amour property was valued at $260,000 in 2010.

[¶3] Husband has been a dairy farmer, farrier, and builder all of his adult life. He ran his family's dairy business through the 1980s. In 2010, husband's mother deeded the 162-acre family farm (referred to as the Danby property) to husband, retaining a life estate as well as the power to sell or mortgage the property during her lifetime. The Danby property was appraised at $515,000 without considering husband's mother's reserved rights, and at $425,000, considering the reservation of rights. The court found the appraiser's opinion credible and reliable, and it valued the property at $425,000. Husband also owned a third of an acre adjacent to the farm, valued at $15,000.

[¶4] The parties disputed the valuation and distribution of a business known as Bit Wipes. The court found that both parties had the idea for Bit Wipes, both were instrumental in the creation and design of the product, and both contributed substantially to the eventual design and marketing of the final product. The parties made a small profit on the business each year. The parties presented no expert evidence, however, as to the value of this business. For various reasons, the court set $40,000 as the business's fair market value. The court noted that husband had requested payment for his interest in Bit Wipes in the form of spousal support. The court found no support for this approach in fact or in law. It explained that Bit Wipes, like the rest of the marital estate, needed to be analyzed as marital property in accordance with 15 V.S.A. § 751.

[¶5] The court found that the parties had other sources of income during the marriage. Wife taught riding lessons, and held camps, shows, and other events. Husband assisted by doing chores, setting up events, and doing general repairs and upkeep around the farm. The court found it clear from the evidence that Horse Amour was a very labor intensive business, and that the amount of revenue generated from all sources was directly related to the hours of labor devoted to the various enterprises. The parties were able to earn more revenue as a couple than they could earn separately.

[¶6] The court also analyzed the parties' current employment and living situations. It found that husband worked part-time as a bus driver, and that he did some farrier work. Husband lived with his mother and paid for groceries and other bills as he was able. The court found that wife continued boarding horses, giving riding lessons, and having camps and similar events, in addition to running the Bit Wipes business. Wife never had less than $62,000 in gross revenue. The court found that wife could earn a good living.

[¶7] Considering the statutory factors, the court concluded that the net marital estate should be essentially equally divided. It awarded wife the Horse Amour property and an adjacent lot, the Bit Wipes business, as well as various other items of personal property. The court awarded husband the Danby property and the adjacent lot, as well as other items of personal property. The court calculated the value of wife's award at $435,700 and ...

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