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MacKenzie v. MacKenzie

Supreme Court of Vermont

December 1, 2017

Christina B. Forstmann MacKenzie
v.
Douglas MacKenzie

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Family Division William D. Cohen, J.

          Brian K. Marthage, Bennington, and Jeremy Dworkin, South Londonderry, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Mary P. Kehoe, The Kehoe Law Firm, P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ., and Teachout, Supr. J., and Dooley, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. In this divorce action, wife challenges the superior court's property distribution, including its award of property in lieu of spousal maintenance. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         ¶ 2. The parties began a romantic relationship in 2002 when they were both married and had children. Their respective divorces were finalized in the spring of 2004, and they began living together that summer. They married in June 2007 and separated in February 2014. No children were born of the marriage, which was the second for both parties.

         ¶ 3. Wife brought into the marriage assets totaling approximately $1.8 million, most of which she obtained through her divorce from her first husband. Husband brought into the marriage between $4.4 and $5.4 million in assets, which he accumulated through his work in the financial services industry from 1985 to 2000. In 2004, following their divorces from their former spouses, the parties jointly and equally purchased as tenants in common a $1.85 million home in Connecticut, subject to a $1.3-million mortgage, and a $685, 000 condominium in Stratton, Vermont, subject to a $500, 000 mortgage. During this period, the parties were unemployed or underemployed, living off husband's assets and the support wife was receiving from her first husband.

         ¶ 4. In May 2006, the parties jointly and equally purchased as tenants in common a home in Winhall, Vermont for $2 million, subject to a $650, 000 mortgage. At the time, husband was working as a consultant to a hedge fund. In February 2008, after a Connecticut court granted wife permission to relocate to Vermont with her two minor children, the parties sold their Connecticut home and moved into the Winhall home.

         ¶ 5. To preserve wife's spousal support from her first husband, the parties initially kept their finances separate. They did not open their first joint bank account until early 2008, six months after they married. In November 2009, the parties sold their Stratton condominium.

         ¶ 6. In 2011, husband returned to work full time in the financial services industry, as a fund manager for a Japanese company for a base salary of $480, 000. The job required husband to work in New York City during the week. In the spring of 2013, husband began working for Citibank, which compensated him with substantial deferred stock and cash in addition to a base salary of $400, 000. Husband's job required him to work in Houston four days a week, but he continued to spend weekends in Vermont.

         ¶ 7. The parties separated in February 2014, and wife filed for divorce in April of that year. A divorce hearing was held over fourteen days between March 2015 and January 2016. On the last day of the hearing, husband was fifty-seven years old and in good health. Wife was fifty-one years old and in good health. She is a certified paramedic and has a Bachelor's Degree in General Studies. She intended to enroll in a two-year physician's assistant program in the fall of 2017, after which she hoped to earn a six-figure salary.

         ¶ 8. The superior court issued a twenty-eight-page final decision and divorce order in October 2016. After examining each of the property distribution factors set forth in 15 V.S.A. § 751(b), the court concluded that it would be inequitable to simply apportion the marital estate by the percentage each party brought into the marriage, even though the marriage was relatively brief. The court found the marital estate to consist of $5, 632, 221 in total assets and $569, 968 in total debts. In considering how to distribute the property, the court found that: (1) husband brought substantially more assets into the marriage; (2) he was more likely to maintain employment that would compensate him at a level consistent with the parties' lifestyle during the marriage; (3) wife made significant contributions to the household, but husband contributed to a greater degree to the maintenance and/or increase in the value of the marital estate; and (4) wife had not been gainfully employed through much of the parties' relationship. The court awarded the Winhall home to husband, but allowed wife to remain in the home until her daughter graduated from high school. To compensate wife for her share of the parties' real property, the court ordered husband to pay wife $1.1625 million by June 2018 or six months after the conclusion of the case, whichever came later. The court also divided the parties' substantial personal property.

         ¶ 9. As for spousal maintenance, the court concluded that it was appropriate and preferable to award wife additional property in lieu of maintenance, considering "the substantial size of the marital estate, the acrimonious state of the parties' relationship, and the brief duration of the marriage." After examining the statutory maintenance conditions and factors set forth in 15 V.S.A. § 752, the court awarded wife an additional cash transfer of $970, 000 to ensure that wife would be financially independent. The court stated that the award was both part of an equitable property distribution and, above and beyond that, additional property in lieu of maintenance. The court did not specify what part of the award was property division and what part was property in lieu of maintenance.

         ¶ 10. The parties filed motions to amend or clarify the superior court's final divorce order, including its treatment of husband's deferred compensation from Citibank and its property award in lieu of maintenance. In response to the motions, the court amended some of its findings and conclusions concerning the deferred compensation and clarified that the $970, 000 awarded to wife was intended partly as an offset to a particular bank account awarded to husband and partly as additional property in lieu of a spousal maintenance award. But again, the court did not specify what part was property division and what part was property in lieu of maintenance.

         ¶ 11. On appeal, wife argues that: (1) the court erred in failing to consider the length of the parties' premarital relationship and cohabitation in establishing its property distribution and maintenance award; (2) by awarding her an undifferentiated lump-sum payment that was partially property settlement and partially a maintenance award, the superior court failed to explain how its division of marital assets was equitable and whether the unspecified maintenance award would ...


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