Ex-Husband’s Delays with Financial Discovery Requires Court to Grant Relief to Wife

Property settlement and alimony are critical issues in a divorce. Recently, these issues arose in the dissolution of a 27-year Florida marriage. Specifically, an ex-husband was awarded all the marital assets and didn’t have to pay any alimony after his extended delay in providing his financial records.

Richard filed for dissolution of the marriage in 2003. Ex-wife Vanessa filed a counterpetition, seeking alimony and an equitable distribution of the parties’ assets. The case dragged on for six more years before the trial court entered a final judgment dissolving the marriage in 2010. At the same time, the trial court appointed a forensic accountant and directed the parties to comply with his requests for information to resolve outstanding issues concerning equitable asset distribution and alimony, along with attorney fees and costs.

Vanessa made a motion for temporary attorney fees and costs, and the trial court granted the motion. The judge order Richard to pay $10,000 toward the accountant fees and $15,000 toward Vanessa’s attorney fees. But he was found in contempt for willfully failing to pay these fees.

At the contempt hearing, the trial court noted that a financial accounting of Richard’s corporation was needed to determine its value and whether it was a marital asset. Richard said he hadn’t yet provided his business records pursuant to the trial court’s previous orders. The trial court found that Richard failed to make any temporary support payments to Vanessa for two years, an arrearage of $36,000. Even so, the trial court ruled that this would be addressed in the equitable distribution determination at the final hearing.

Richard sought a partial equitable distribution of the parties’ marital real estate, and the trial court awarded him a $325,000 house purchased during the marriage—which he stipulated was a marital asset. The trial court noted that this distribution was to be incorporated into the final equitable distribution of all other marital assets.

Two months before the scheduled final hearing, Vanessa filed a motion to continue and a motion to order Richard to pay her legal fees and accounting fees. Richard still hadn’t provided his business financial records for a forensic accounting. The court denied Vanessa’s motions.

A month before the final hearing, the trial court granted a motion to withdraw from Vanessa’s attorney. She hired a new attorney who asked for a continuance to allow him time to prepare for trial. The motion specifically alleged the need for the forensic accounting of Richard’s business. But that motion was denied.

Vanessa appeared at the final hearing via telephone and without legal representation. At the hearing, the trial court wouldn’t allow her to argue the need for a continuance based upon the lack of an accounting and wouldn’t allow her to present testimony because of her violation of a previous order to appear in person. Although the trial court acknowledged that she was appearing pro se, it didn’t inform her of her right to represent herself, present evidence, or argue on her own behalf. Vanessa, being unable to testify, didn’t present any evidence. The court dismissed her counterpetition by granting Richard’s motion for directed verdict. The trial court didn’t revisit the issues of the equitable distribution of the $325,000 home to Richard or his $36,000 support arrearage. The trial court also awarded her no alimony after 27 years of marriage.

On appeal, Vanessa argued that the trial court abused its discretion by denying her motion for continuance. Judge Daniel H. Sleet of the District Court of Appeals, Second District, noted that in determining whether the trial court abused its discretion, the reviewing court should consider “whether the denial of the continuance creates an injustice for the movant; whether the cause of the request for continuance was unforeseeable by the movant and not the result of dilatory practices; and whether the opposing party would suffer any prejudice or inconvenience as a result of a continuance.”

The Court of Appeals noted that it had recognized in other cases that “in certain circumstances, the denial [of a motion to continue] may create an injustice which outweighs the policy of not disturbing the trial court’s ruling.” Here, it concluded that the trial court erred in denying Vanessa’s motion for continuance. Even though the trial court had a tough task of navigating its way through this protracted, acrimonious divorce with multiple attorneys and two contentious ex-spouses, the denial of the continuance created a clear injustice for Vanessa.

Vanessa specifically alleged that a forensic accounting of Richard’s business had never been performed, which wasn’t her fault and was unforeseeable. This was the direct result of Richard’s continued refusal to provide his business financial records. Without those records and an accounting, Vanessa had no evidence upon which to attempt to establish Richard’s ability to pay alimony, attorney fees, and costs.

In addition, she needed his business financial records to establish any right she might have to the business for an equitable distribution of marital assets. Without this, Richard was awarded all the parties’ marital real property, and Vanessa was awarded nothing in the equitable distribution. This was an injustice to Vanessa, Judge Sleet wrote, particularly where the trial court never revisited the issue of its distribution to Richard of a $325,000 home that was marital property or his $36,000 support arrearage.

Judge Sleet and the Court of Appeals found that Vanessa established a specific need for the continuance and a time frame in which to fulfill that need. Plus, Richard wouldn’t have suffered any prejudice or inconvenience because of a continuance. The parties had been divorced since 2010, and Richard had possession of all marital real property since 2013. The Court of Appeals reversed the final judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Ramadon v. Ramadon, 2017 Fla. App. LEXIS 2236; 42 Fla. L. Weekly D 432 (Fla. DCA Dist. February 17, 2017).

Protecting a spouse’s rights and representing his or her interests in receiving a fair property settlement and sufficient alimony is the goal of the DeVoe Law Firm in Orlando. Hire an experienced divorce attorney to advise you about your rights in divorce, especially as they relate to your property, alimony, and expenses. Call DeVoe Law Firm to schedule a free consultation with an experienced attorney.