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, Chittenden Unit, Family Division. DOCKET NO. 440-5-11 Cndm. Trial Judge: A. Gregory Rainville.
Paul L. Reiber, Chief Justice, John A. Dooley, Associate Justice, Harold E. Eaton, Jr., Associate Justice.
Wife appeals pro se from the trial court's order on remand in this divorce case. She argues that the trial court erred in finding that: (1) husband was entitled to a portion of a legal settlement that she received; and (2) it was likely that wife's undergraduate student loan would be paid off through a public-service loan forgiveness program. We affirm.
The trial court issued its original decision in June 2012. It awarded husband primary custody of the parties' minor daughter, and it divided the marital estate. As relevant here, the court awarded the marital residence to husband " free and clear of any interest" of wife, finding that wife had consented to such award. The court also awarded husband $2000 as his equitable share of personal property that wife had removed from the marital home. The court directed that each party be solely responsible for any debts in his or her individual name. The court further awarded wife the proceeds of a settlement with her prior employer. While the net value of the settlement was unclear, the court found that wife had retained all of the funds. She had used a significant portion to pay living expenses for herself and the parties' child after separating from husband, and the court found that she still possessed approximately $17,000 in a joint account with her mother. Presumably mindful of wife's access to these funds, the court ordered wife to pay husband $1100 in attorney's fees.
Wife appealed. We affirmed the custody decision, but reversed and remanded the property division and the attorney-fee award. See Hanson-Metayer v. Hanson-Metayer, 2013 VT 29, 193 Vt. 490, 70 A.3d 1036. We found no evidence that wife had consented to husband receiving the marital home without providing her a share of the equity. Id. ¶ 54. We also found that the trial court failed to explain why it awarded husband $2000 as his equitable share of personal property removed from the marital home. Id. ¶ ¶ 56-57. We remanded the entire property division award to give the court flexibility to fashion an equitable distribution on remand. Finally, we addressed wife's assertion that the court erred in its attorney-fee award because it did not properly consider the parties' financial situations. We concluded that the court erred in finding that wife continued to possess $17,000 in settlement funds, pointing to wife's testimony at trial that the settlement money had been spent. Thus, we stated that the court's finding that this money was available to pay attorney's fees was not supported by the evidence. Id. ¶ 66.
The trial court issued its decision on remand in May 2014. It did not take new evidence. As to the settlement funds, the court reiterated that it remained unclear from the evidence how much the parties actually realized after payment of expenses and attorney's fees. While there was testimony that the parties received approximately $10,000, wife had filed a financial affidavit at the 2012 hearing stating that she had a bank account that contained approximately $17,000 in settlement funds. The court reiterated that wife had had sole control of the settlement funds. While wife testified at the merits hearing that she spent all of the funds, the court found ample evidence, as recited in its original order, to indicate that wife's credibility was suspect. The court explained that it could not rely on wife's representations without significant corroborating evidence. It added that wife had not provided any evidence supporting her contention in the form of a bank statement setting forth the present balance that would document or corroborate her statement that the funds had been expended, nor had she amended her financial affidavit to so indicate. Accordingly, the court found that the parties realized at least $17,000 from settlement of the litigation, which would be in line with the typical contingency-fee arrangement.
The court found no evidence that husband received the benefit of any of the settlement proceeds despite the fact that he was married to wife during the events giving rise to wrongful-termination lawsuit. Wife had been fired from her job, which caused substantial financial hardship for both parties. Husband had been acting as a stay-at-home parent, and he was required to resume his employment. He was also subjected to the emotional turmoil the parties suffered during this period of time. The court found that husband's own claim as a spouse in the underlying case was significant and the substance and extent of such claim was supported by husband's testimony in the instant case. Based on its analysis, the court found that husband was entitled to $5000 from the net settlement proceeds. It awarded this amount to husband, with the remainder of the proceeds awarded to wife. The court stated that it fully expected that the settlement proceeds had long since been expended, and that wife, a law student, lacked significant income from employment from which she could derive the funds to compensate husband. It thus determined that, while wife was entitled to half of the equity in the marital home ($5000), this payment would be offset by the $5000 that wife owed to husband.
As to husband's award for his share of personal property removed from the marital home, the court found that upon further consideration, and in light of its amended order as to the distribution of equity in the home, all of the personal property in each parties' possession should remain as an equitable distribution. The court found this consistent with wife's request.
Consistent with its original order, the court directed that each party bear sole responsibility for any debts, including student loans, in his or her individual name. The court recognized that wife had a significant student loan of $25,000 in her name resulting from her undergraduate studies, but, consistent with wife's testimony, the court found it likely that this debt would be paid off by her law school as part of the compensation that she was expected to receive for work in the public sector after graduation.
Finally, with respect to the attorney-fee award, the court found that wife was not in the position to pay this award, and that husband was in a better financial position than wife. The court determined that while some of wife's litigation was unnecessary and instigated with improper motive, the financial equities experienced by the parties could not serve as the basis for an award of attorney's fees in husband's favor. Thus, it held each party responsible for his or her own legal fees and costs. Wife appealed from this order.
Wife first argues that the trial court ignored this Court's clear instructions that the $17,000 of settlement money did not exist. According to wife, the court erroneously relied on this evidence to deny her any share of the equity in the marital home. She argues that the court further erred by failing to explain why it awarded husband $5000 as his share of the settlement proceeds.
As we stated in wife's first appeal, the trial court has " wide discretion" in dividing marital property. Id. ¶ 52. We will not disturb the court's decision absent a showing that its discretion " was abused, withheld or exercised on untenable grounds or to a clearly unreasonable extent." Id. (quotation omitted). In reaching its decision, the court need not specify the weight given to each factor set forth in 15 V.S.A. § 751, or even specifically address each statutory factor; we require only that the court " provide a clear statement as to what was decided and why." Molleur v. Molleur, 2012 VT 16, ¶ 15, 191 Vt. 202, 44 A.3d 763 (quotation omitted). We recognize that " the distribution of property is not an exact science and does not always lend ...