A trial court’s decision to amend a judgment of divorce to equally split the marital portion of the wife’s pension with her ex-husband was not inequitable, a Michigan Court of Appeals panel has ruled.
“Considering the totality of the facts and the flexible framework entrusted to the trial court to divide marital assets, we are not left with a firm conviction that the trial court’s ruling was inequitable,” the judges said.
The unpublished per curiam opinion is Weingartz v. Weingartz. The members of the panel were Judges Mark J. Cavanagh, Deborah A. Servitto and Kristina Robinson Garrett.
Donald and Lori Weingartz married in 2000. Donald filed for divorce in 2019.
Donald has been disabled since 2016 and is unable to work. His primary source of income is Social Security disability benefits. Lori retired from teaching in 2019 and receives a pension.
After many hearings, the Tuscola County Circuit Court issued an opinion on the terms of the divorce, saying the division of Lori’s pension was “linked” with a determination of spousal support. Lori was awarded her entire pension free of any claim by Donald. However, Lori was ordered to pay monthly spousal support to Donald for six years.
Donald moved for reconsideration after the entry of judgment of divorce. He claimed he was entitled to half of the marital portion of his ex-wife’s pension, and calculated the value of the pension, as a marital asset, at more than $700,000.
The trial court granted Donald’s motion, acknowledging it “was not privy to the actual calculations that have since been provided by the Plaintiff.”
Noting that it looked at the “then current state of the parties and not the long-term effect” of their assets, the trial court determined that Donald should get 50% of the marital share of Lori’s pension and that she was no longer required to pay spousal support.
No abuse or error
Lori claimed the lower court abused its discretion when it granted Donald’s motion for reconsideration because he made no new arguments or arguments that he couldn’t have made previously.
The panel disagreed.
“In this case, the trial court granted plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration because it believed it had made a mistake in the marital property distribution and wanted to correct it,” the panel explained. “Because the trial court has broad discretion when deciding motions for reconsideration, including to correct errors, the court did not abuse its discretion by reconsidering its original judgment.”
Lori’s next argument — that the equal division of the marital portion of her pension was inequitable and constituted reversible error — was similarly rebuffed.
The panel looked to the factors set forth in Sparks v. Sparks, and said there may be other relevant factors depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. In other words, there is no “rigid framework.”
While Lori said the amended judgment of divorce leaves her with more than three times less monthly income than Donald, the judges couldn’t determine how she arrived at the numbers in her brief.
“While it appears that plaintiff’s monthly income — from marital and nonmarital assets — is greater than defendant’s, we cannot accept defendant’s unsupported valuations on the scope of that disparity,” the panel wrote. “Even so, defendant has not established that the difference in the parties’ monthly incomes stems from an inequitable distribution of marital assets.”
Lori and Donald each get an amount from the marital estate each month that is generally equal; Donald’s monthly income is higher simply because he has access to nonmarital assets that pay him each month.
“Most of plaintiff’s monthly income comes from Social Security disability benefits,” the panel pointed out. “While this Social Security disability benefit may be considered when dividing marital property, it cannot be considered marital property itself.”
Lori didn’t dispute Donald’s valuation of her pension as a marital asset, and the trial court agreed with it. The appellate judges said there was no basis to disturb the lower court’s finding.
“The anticipated longevity of defendant’s pension makes it the most valuable asset in the marital estate,” the panel said. “Awarding that property to defendant alone would substantially deviate from splitting the marital assets equally. Although the trial court ‘need not divide the marital estate into mathematically equal portions,’ it must clearly explain ‘any significant departure from congruence.’”
As such, the panel upheld the lower court’s ruling.
“The trial court exercised its discretion to limit any significant departures in the division of marital asserts by splitting the marital portion of defendant’s pension equally,” the judges concluded. “We must affirm the trial court’s ruling unless we are left with a firm conviction that the division of the marital assets was inequitable.”