Wife’s lack of corroborating evidence mostly dooms her appeal

Posted Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney's Fees, Divorce and Marriage, Equitable Distribution/Property Division, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

In the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes deduces the identity of the thief, in part, by noting that a dog did not bark, indicating the thief was no stranger. Holmes understood that the absence of evidence can be as telling as evidence itself.

This is often true in family court cases. Often a litigant’s claims would be corroborated by documentary evidence. When a litigant makes such claims but fails to produce the documentary corroboration, a court is right to look skeptically at the litigant’s claims. That appears to be what happened to Wife in the November 2, 2016 Court of Appeals opinion in Miteva v. Robinson, 792 S.E.2d 920, 418 S.E.2d 477 (Ct. App. 2016)

Wife filed an divorce action on the ground of Husband’s habitual intoxication. She alleged that some of her property was non-marital and some of Husband’s pre-marital property had been transmuted. At trial, the family court refused her fault divorce claim (granting the parties a no-fault divorce), rejected some of Wife’s transmutation claims while dividing the marital estate equally, and required her to pay all of Husband’s attorney’s fees. She appealed.

On the fault-divorce issue, the Court of Appeals affirmed the family court. While both parties presented corroborating witnesses on allegations of Husband’s habitual intoxication, the family court found one of Husband’s witnesses most credible. Wife presented four incident reports, claiming she called the police four times while Husband was intoxicated. However none of these four reports mentioned Husband’s intoxication and one report was made by Wife after the separation regarding an incident Wife claim occurred before the separation. The family court felt Wife had made this report to create corroborating evidence.

Both the family court and the Court of Appeals found “Husband’s appearance and professional accomplishments suggested he was a person of considerable self-control.” This was a significant factor in rejecting Wife’s fault-divorce request. Numerous successful professionals are also alcoholics (the law is, sadly, full of them). Evidently the ability to hold oneself together professionally mitigates the risk that heavy alcohol use will lead to a fault divorce.

The family court rejected Wife’s claim that mobile homes Husband owned prior to the marriage had been transmuted into marital property. She claimed she had given Husband funds to pay off credit card debt that was related to these mobile homes. However Wife failed to produce the credit card statements or her proof of these payments, leading both courts to reject this claim.

Wife also argued that two pieces of real estate she owned were not marital. One property was purchased prior to the marriage and Wife claimed she had used proceeds from the sale of pre-marital property to purchase the second property. Husband argued that both properties were marital. He was listed as the purchaser of both properties (Wife was listed as a co-purchaser on one) and was listed as the landlord of one property. Husband contended he had done significant work in maintaining and improving the properties, and produced documentary evidence to corroborate these claims. The family court further found that documentary evidence supported Husband’s claim that his HELOC had not been used to repay Wife from loans she provided him (as Wife claimed) but had been used to help finance these properties. Based on this, the Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that these were marital properties.

Wife further argued that the marital estate should not have been divided equally. The marriage was short duration–less than four years from the date of marriage to the date of filing. Wife made numerous arguments as to why she should receive the majority of the marital estate. At least a few of her arguments appear to be contradicted by the documentary evidence she provided in discovery or at trial. The Court of Appeals found no error in the equal division.

However, the Court of Appeals modified the family court’s award of fees to Husband. The family court had made Wife pay all of Husband’s fees. The Court of Appeals reduced this award from $27,561.29 to $15,000. While agreeing with the family court that Husband was the prevailing party, the Court of Appeals noted that Wife was successful on some of the issues. It further noted each party had an equal ability to pay fees and that, at the time of trial, Husband’s income was greater than Wife’s. Given these circumstances, the Court of Appeals did not believe Wife should pay all of Husband’s fees.

There are two, not necessarily exclusive, possibilities. Wife may have been lying about the parties’ acquisition of marital assets and debts and Husband’s heavy alcohol use. Wife may have had corroborating evidence of her claims but failed to provide it at trial. If Wife was simply lying (or exaggerating), it’s hard to see this resolution as unjust. However if Wife was merely disbelieved due to inconsistent or inadequate documentation, this represents a failure by her and/or her trial attorney.

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