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O'Neil v. O'Neil

Supreme Court of Vermont

October 31, 2014

Katherine Amy O'Neil
Shawn O'Neil

Editorial Note:

This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter.

APPEALED FROM: Superior Court, Addison Unit, Family Division. DOCKET NO. 236-12-12 Andm. Trial Judge: Robert A. Mello.

Paul L. Reiber, Chief Justice, John A. Dooley, Associate Justice, Harold E. Eaton, Jr., Associate Justice.


In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

Wife appeals the court's final divorce order. On appeal, wife argues that the court abused its discretion in dividing the marital property because she states that husband received the entirety of his retirement account, the parties' only substantial asset, while wife was saddled with the sole responsibility of repaying her educational debt. We affirm.

The court found the following. The parties were married in 1998 and separated in September 2012 when wife asked husband to leave the marital residence. Three children were born during the marriage. At the time of the final hearing, wife was 41 and husband was 47. Wife graduated from college before the parties were married. Husband graduated from college in 1999 and supported the family financially during the first ten years of the marriage. Wife was the primary caregiver for the children and then went back to school to obtain a nursing degree, and eventually a nursing license in 2008. Wife presently works as a school nurse and earns an annual salary of $42,417. Husband works at Middlebury College and earns $42,000 annually. The court found that husband's salary will not increase by much in the foreseeable future because he does not hold a professional degree and does not have easily transferable skills.

The parties had few assets to distribute. Both had vehicles and personal property, but they did not own any real property. The parties' main asset was husband's retirement account, which was accrued during the marriage and worth $79,889.42 at the time of the final hearing.[1] At trial, wife requested half of the account. Wife testified that she had student loans of $141,897, most of which were associated with obtaining her undergraduate degree prior to the marriage. Husband also testified that he had college loans, which he accrued before and during the marriage.

The parties agreed to share physical parental rights and responsibilities, and the court divided the legal rights between the parties.

The relevant portions of the court's property division decision are as follows. The court granted husband his entire retirement account. The court cited four reasons for its decision. First, the court noted that husband is six years older than wife and therefore has less time to build up a retirement account. Second, the court found that husband's income is not likely to increase substantially. Third, the court found that wife has the ability to earn significantly more than her current salary. The court pointed to the facts that wife had worked as a camp nurse one summer, earning $8000, and that wife had worked, and could work in the future, at the hospital for $28 an hour or more. Finally, the court found that husband had contributed to wife's current position by working and making it possible for wife to earn her nursing degree. The court denied husband's request for spousal maintenance because he has sufficient income to provide for his reasonable needs and is able to support himself at the standard of living established during the marriage. [2] The court ordered both parties to be solely responsible for their student loans and any other debts.

Pursuant to statute, the family court is required to " equitably divide and assign the property." 15 V.S.A. § 751(a). The trial court enjoys broad discretion in dividing the marital property, and we will uphold its decision unless that discretion was withheld or abused. Gravel v. Gravel, 2009 VT 77, ¶ 16, 186 Vt. 250, 980 A.2d 242.

Wife first argues that the court failed to carry out its statutory duty to divide the marital property because it granted husband 100% of the marital assets. There is no merit to this argument insofar as husband did not receive the entirety of the martial assets. The court gave some property to wife -- two cars, her life insurance policy, personal belongings -- and gave other property to husband -- his retirement account, his car, his life insurance policy and his personal property.[3] That the court did not divide the retirement account does not equate to a failure to divide the marital property generally.

Next, wife contends that the court abused its discretion in evaluating the statutory factors and granting husband a disproportionately large share of the marital assets. Wife contends that an equitable division of property begins with a presumption that the division will be equal, and here, husband essentially received all of the assets while wife was left with nothing but her entire student debt.

The distribution of marital property " is not an exact science; all that is required is that the distribution be equitable." Gravel v. Gravel, 2009 VT 77, ¶ 16, 186 Vt. 250, 980 A.2d 242. Contrary to wife's assertion, the family court is not required to make an equal division of property. See Goodrich v. Goodrich, 158 Vt. 587, 593, 613 A.2d 203 (1992) (explaining that equal division is not necessary to achieve equity). A disparate property division is not " facially inequitable," and will not be reversed as long as the family court makes ...

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