In my almost four years of blogging about every reported South Carolina appellate decision from family court and over fifteen years of handling family law appeals, I can discern a few clear patterns on when the appellate courts will reverse an equitable distribution award. Math errors and clear mistakes of law will always lead to modification. However, there are occasional published opinions in which the appellate court simply appears to disagree with the family court’s equitable distribution decision. If anyone can discern a pattern or rationale behind these decisions they are much smarter than I.
The February 20, 2013 Court of Appeals opinion on Curry v. Curry, 402 S.C. 488, 741 S.E.2d 558 (Ct. App. 2013), is one such case. In Curry, Husband was gifted a waterfront lot (worth $200,000 at the time) from his mother in exchange for which he disclaimed any future inheritance from her. Within weeks he transferred a one-half interest in this lot to Wife. They then build on the property and, at the time of trial, the lot appeared to be worth $850,000 and the lot and house together appeared to be worth $1,225,000. The parties stipulated that the total marital estate was worth $1,300,000.
The family court apparently awarded Husband 55% of the value of the house and 50% of the remaining marital property and ordered him to pay Wife $285,698.42 “to effect a fifty[-]percent distribution of the parties’ non-real estate marital assets.” Husband appealed this issue.
On appeal the Court of Appeals awarded Husband 55% of the entire marital estate and reduced the amount he owed Wife to $275,760.43. The Curry opinion provides over 2 ½ pages of explanation for this result but reading it I cannot discern why 55% is the correct result and not 53%, 62% or 57%. What I do know is that Husband “gained” $9,939.99 in equitable distribution from this appeal, which I am sure does not begin to cover his fees and costs for it.
Husband also appealed the finding that he was habitually intoxicated, claiming that the family court applied an incorrect, prima facie, standard as the burden of proof. At trial, “Husband testified he ‘might have [had] two, three, four drinks’ of two to three ounces of Scotch daily.” The Court of Appeals found this, along with eyewitness testimony of Husband’s drinking habits, was sufficient evidence of habitual intoxication even at the correct, preponderance of the evidence, standard. It therefore held that he suffered no prejudice from the incorrect burden of proof.
I would have a hard time arguing with a straight face that twelve ounces of daily Scotch consumption wasn’t habitual intoxication. Then again, with twelve ounces of daily Scotch consumption, I might have a hard time even standing up.