The Indiana Supreme Court has determined that a trial court did not err in its method of dividing assets between a divorced Hendricks County couple, parting ways on the opinion of the Court of call from Indiana.
Elizabeth Roetter and Michael Roetter married in May 2014 without a prenuptial agreement.
Michael’s prenuptial assets included an individual retirement account valued at over $82,000, a 401(k) valued at $383,000, and two life insurance policies. But Elizabeth entered the marriage with more than $100,000 in student loan debt for an incomplete college education.
The marriage produced two children, born in 2014 and 2017, and Elizabeth quit her job and dedicated herself as a full-time carer, as per the couple’s agreement. One of the children has autism and requires several types of therapy.
Michael worked outside the home during the marriage and earned an annual salary of over $100,000.
Elizabeth filed for divorce in October 2019. The parties agreed on custody arrangements, parenting time and child support, but disagreed on spousal support and split marital heritage.
The wife asked for $100 in weekly child support for three years due to the level of care required for their autistic child, as well as 55% of the marital estate, half the total value of the two retirement accounts and Michael to assume half of his student. loan debt. But Michael objected to the maintenance request and demanded the full value of both retirement accounts, except for 50% of the increase in value of the 401(k) during the marriage.
The Hendricks Circuit Court granted Elizabeth’s request for child support, but ordered Michael to pay her $100 a week for 18 months instead of three years. Also, instead of “additional monthly maintenance payments”, the court ordered Elizabeth to “keep the $12,000 advance” she had received for her “advance share” of marital assets.
In August 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld in part and reversed in part. The panel found that given the $12,000 advance Elizabeth received, the trial court properly exercised its discretion in ordering Michael to pay child support for 18 months.
However, the COA also ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in dividing the matrimonial estate, determining the trial court’s “individualized allocations” of retirement accounts to Michael and student loan debt to Elizabeth, essentially resulting in a 75% to 25% split, creating a “glaring disparity” that “biased” in favor of the husband.
Finding that the trial court’s analysis was flawed, the lower appeal panel went on to point to “other statutory factors” that weighed “significantly” in Elizabeth’s favour. So the panel returned with instructions to the trial court for a remedy “closer to the fifty-five, forty-five split” sought by Elizabeth.
But in the transfer, the Supreme Court said the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding spousal support or dividing property.
“While sympathetic to Wife’s argument, we affirm the trial court’s judgment on the issue (of spousal support),” Judge Christopher Goff wrote. “Certainly the facts on which the wife relies may be relevant to an analysis of a trial court’s award of Guardian maintenance. … But the wife contests only the attribution by the court of first instance of rehabilitation maintenance, which aims to remedy the earning capacity of a spouse following an interruption of studies and employment “during the marriage”.
“…Furthermore, the wife has provided no evidence – and raises no argument – as to whether her future employment requires education or training, let alone the time and expense required for such education or training. “, the court found, also noting that Elizabeth’s maintenance award of $19,800 exceeded the requested amount of $15,600.
Regarding the division of marital property, the judges also determined that the trial court had properly considered all relevant factors under the division of property law.
“In dividing the martial estate, the trial court expressly found that the marriage was short-lived, that the wife acted as the primary caregiver of the children during the marriage, that she ‘brought very little of assets at marriage”, that she failed to advise Husband of the student loan debt she incurred before marriage, that the husband “received no benefit” from his wife’s education and that the woman ‘is capable of earning an income’ of up to ‘$30,000’,” Goff wrote.
“…These findings either correspond to relevant factors under our division of property law or find support in our case law,” he continued. “…Certainly, as the Court of Appeal observed, certain facts may have justified a distribution more favorable to the Wife. … But, ultimately, the standard of review prevents us from substituting our judgment for that of the trial court.
Further, the Supreme Court determined that so long as it considers all assets and debts, and so long as it offers sufficient findings to rebut the alleged equal division, the trial court need not apply a technical formula for dividing the matrimonial estate.
The deal is Elizabeth Roetter vs. Michael P. Roetter, Jr.., 21S-DC-568.