COA affirmed family court’s award of attorney and expert fees, but vacates part of award re ownership interest in business and debt forgiveness as non-marital property: ALISON V. ALISON (COA 2/15/2008)

ALLISON V. ALLISON
FAMILY LAW: 
MARITAL/NONMARITAL CHARACTERIZATION OR PROPERTY AND DEBTS; ATTORNEY FEES
2006-CA-001967
PUBLISHED: AFFIRMING IN PART AND VACATING IN PART AND REMANDING
PANEL: BUCKINGHAM PRESIDING; THOMPSON, HENRY CONCUR
COUNTY: FAYETTE
DATE RENDERED: 2/15/2008

Ex-Husband appealed from TC’s orders relating to marital/nonmarital nature of his family’s business, the marital/nonmarital nature of a $66,714 debt allegedly owed by Ex-Wife to her mother, and the award of attorney and expert witness fees.

Ex-Husband and Ex-Wife were married on September 5, 1986. In the early 1970’s, Ex-Husband’s mother and father acquired all stock in an office-supply business. Ex-Husband owned all shares of stock in the business at the time of trial, which he claimed to be his nonmarital property. He claimed that prior to the marriage he entered into an agreement that gave him an 8% interest in the business in exchange for a promissory note from him for $32,000. Ex-Husband never paid the note, and TC found that his father had forgiven the debt. Ex-Husband contended that he owned this portion of the outstanding business shares as his nonmarital property because the forgiveness of the debt constituted a gift to him. Alternatively, he contended that this ownership interest is his nonmarital property because he acquired it before marriage.

As to the remaining shares of corporate stock, during the marriage, there was a stock redemption agreement between Ex-Husband’s parents and the corporation whereby the parents sold their 84,800 shares of stock to the corporation for a sum that was paid to them over a ten-year period by corporate earnings. Ex-Husband claimed that these shares were also his parents’ gift to him and that he never paid any money, from marital funds or otherwise, for the stock.

Ex-Husband ultimately argued to CA that he had at least an 8% nonmarital interest in the business due to the forgiveness of the payment for the stock by his father, citing KRS 403.190(2)(a) which expressly excludes property acquired by gift from the definition of “marital property” unless “there are significant activities of either spouse which contributed to the increase in value of said property and the income earned therefrom.” Alternatively, Ex-Husband stated that the 8% interest is nonmarital because it was acquired before marriage.

CA provided that if Ex-Husband acquired his ownership interest in exchange for the note, and that indebtedness was later forgiven, then the forgiveness of the indebtedness would be a gift to Ex-Husband and would constitute a nonmarital interest in the corporation. CA thus vacated TC’s determination that Ex-Husband did not have a nonmarital interest in the corporation and remanded the matter for TC to determine the extent of Ex-Husband’s interest prior to the redemption agreement and whether such interest was marital or was proven by Ex-Husband to be nonmarital as a result of a gift or nonmarital as having been acquired before marriage.

CA further noted that if, on remand, TC determined that Ex-Husband’s interest prior to the redemption was marital, then any increase in ownership interest because of the redemption agreement was also necessarily marital. If TC determined that Ex-Husband’s interest prior to the redemption was nonmarital, then it must determine whether any increase in value was marital or nonmarital. CA noted that, in this regard, the case was one of first impression in Kentucky.

CA recognized that under the “source of funds” rule used by Kentucky courts to determine whether property is marital or nonmarital, property is considered to be acquired as it is paid for; thus, the shares of stock sold to the corporation in the stock redemption agreement were not “acquired”, within the meaning of KRS 403.190 and the determination of marital/nonmarital interest, until they were paid for. CA found that these shares were paid for during the marriage over a period of years by corporate earnings and therefore were “acquired” during the marriage and are presumed to be marital property. Ex-Husband attempted to avoid the presumption by arguing that he exchanged his 8% interest for a 100% interest when the stock redemption occurred. CA agreed with Ex-Husband that the value of his ownership interest did not increase at the time of the stock redemption because while the percentage of ownership interest increased, the value of the corporation decreased because of the debt liability created to pay Ex-Husband’s parents for their shares. However, although Ex-Husband’s ownership interest at the time of the redemption of his parents’ shares increased, the value of Ex-Husband’s shares did not. Rather, the value of Ex-Husband’s shares increased during the marriage as the corporation gradually paid the debt to Ex-Husband’s parents. CA provided that if Ex-Husband had a nonmarital interest in the corporation at the time of marriage, the value of that interest likely increased in time as the years passed and the corporation paid off the debt owed to Ex-Husband’s parents. CA held that to the extent the increase was due to Ex-Husband’s efforts as the primary operator of the business and Ex-Wife’s efforts as homemaker, it was marital property. However, to the extent the increase in value was due to general economic conditions, the increase was not marital property.

Ex-Husband’s second argument was that TC erred in finding that checks from Ex-Wife’s mother written to Ex-Wife after she and Ex-Husband separated constituted a marital debt. After the parties separated, Ex-Wife was awarded $2,000 per month for temporary maintenance and $1,000 for child support. Thereafter, as power of attorney for her mother, Ex-Wife wrote checks totaling $66,714 on her mother’s checking account. Some of the checks were written before the maintenance and child support awards to Ex-Wife, and some were written after the awards. Of this amount, $27,300 in checks apparently were written to Ex-Wife herself for cash. Ex-Wife claimed that all the checks were loans from her mother that were needed because she could not meet her living expenses despite her maintenance award of $3,000 per month. She claimed that much of the money went for home maintenance and repair and that the remainder went for living expenses for her and her daughter. Ex-Husband was not aware of the alleged loans, and he argued that the checks were likely to be gifts from Ex-Wife’s mother and that Ex-Wife’s testimony that the checks were loans and the notations of “loan” on some of the checks were insufficient to prove the existence of a loan. Ex-Wife testified as to the nature of the debts and had documentation in the form of checks from her mother that supported her testimony that there was actually a loan. TC accepted Ex-Wife’s claim of indebtedness to her mother based on her testimony and copies of the checks and CA concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the determination that the checks represented loans, not gifts. However, CA held that to the extent that Ex-Wife may have used loan proceeds for her personal expenses and expenses for her child after being awarded temporary maintenance and child support, those debts should be held to be Ex-Wife’s personal debts. To do otherwise would be to increase Ex-Husband’s temporary maintenance and child support obligations during that period of time.

Ex-Husband’s third and final argument was that TC erred in ordering him to pay 25% of Ex-Wife’s attorney fees and expert witness fees because there was not an imbalance in the financial resources of the parties. Ex-husband stated that the marital property was equalized but that the majority of his assigned m
arital property ($1.2 million) was the family business. Ex-Wife asserted that while Ex-Husband had a salary of over $100,000 per year, as well as potentially more due to retained corporate earnings not paid by the corporation, she was 55 years old at the time, had been out of the work force for 10 years, and had only a high school education, so although the marital property was divided equally, the financial resources of the parties were not balanced due to these additional facts. Ex-Husband also correctly stated that TC made no specific finding that there was an imbalance in the financial resources of the party, but that it appeared to base its award on Ex-Husband’s obstructive tactics in failing to comply with discovery requests and orders of the court. Also, Ex-Husband argued that attorney fees may be awarded pursuant to KRS 403.220 only when there is an imbalance in the parties’ financial resources, even though attorney fees may be warranted otherwise under CR 37.01 due to obstruction tactics. CA found that it was not entirely clear whether TC based its award of attorney fees under KRS 403.220 on the financial resources of the parties as well as Ex-Husband’s obstructive tactics. CA found that while TC did not specifically address the parties’ financial resources prior to making the award, it did cite the statute, which requires the court to consider such resources. CA held that, in light of Ex-Husband’s failure to seek a more specific finding from the court, and in light of the fact that a finding of disparity in the parties’ financial resources due to the parties’ respective incomes was supported by the evidence, TC did not abuse its discretion in awarding Ex-Wife 25% of her attorney fees and expert witness fees.

Digested by Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are inappropriate, offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.