Chestnut v. Chestnut is an unpublished 2018 appeal from the Court of Appeals. The case stems from divorce proceedings from an eight-year marriage (at the time of separation) that produced no children. At trial Wife was awarded permanent periodic alimony, a portion of the equity from Husband’s premarital home and household furnishings, and some attorney’s fees. Husband hired me to do a motion to reconsider, The family court gave him some relief on equitable distribution and attorney’s fees. He then appealed.

On appeal he argued that he should not have to pay permanent alimony as it was a short marriage that produced no children and that Wife was underemployed. However the Court of Appeals agreed that with the family court that “even if Wife’s income was doubled, it would leave a great disparity in income between the parties.” Both courts attributed Husband’s growth in income during the marriage–while Wife’s income remained flat–as being due to Wife’s caretaking for both parties’ children. It therefore affirmed the alimony award.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Husband that the family court erred in considering Wife’s premarital contribution to Husband’s home but still found the home has been transmuted, noting that on cross-examination Husband conceded that during the marriage he has referred to the house as “our home,” and that this term included Wife. It found the marital furnishings so commingled that Husband’s premarital furnishings has been transmuted. After finding transmutation the Court of Appeals found an equal division of marital property equitable because Husband had a greater earning capacity. Because Husband only challenged Wife’s fee award if she lost successful results on appeal–which she did not–it affirmed the attorney fee award.

The transmutation decision in Chestnut is a disappointment. Shortly after the Supreme Court denied certiorari in this case, a published Court of Appeals opinion in Hagood v. Hagood, 427 S.C. 642, 832 S.E.2d 609 (Ct. App, 2019), denied a transmutation claim on what I consider to be stronger evidence of transmutation than existed here. As Professor Roy Stuckey notes in “Marital Litigation in South Carolina”:

The case law about transmutation has been both consistent and chaotic. It has been consistent in that the courts agree that the primary question is one of intent: did the owner of the property intend to transmute it into marital property?

The case law about transmutation has been chaotic because courts have struggled to interpret circumstantial evidence of transmutation in a consistent manner. It is impossible to discern consistent lines of reasoning or themes from which one could predict outcomes with any degree of certainty. Even worse, some of the explanations for the outcomes in transformation cases are inconsistent with common sense and human nature.

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