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Court rules on marital estate divisions

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A trial court should assume that when a divorcing couple divides part of their marital assets on its own, that division is done justly and reasonably and the court should divvy up the remainder of their estate as the entire balance.

The Indiana Court of Appeals made that holding in today's ruling on Thelma M. Nornes v. Raymond M. Nornes, No. 46A03-0712-CV-564, a divorce case out of LaPorte County. The two were married in 1998 and started the dissolution process in 2006.

Prior to the final hearing, the Norneses decided to divide all of the marital estate except for Raymond's $43,159 in pension accounts and Thelma's $46,000 in student loans incurred from getting her degree in 2005.

At the hearing, they agreed to split the value of his pension accounts in half, but the loans remained the only outstanding liability at issue. He argued she should be responsible for them all because she reaped the benefits of the degree. The trial court ordered that Thelma was responsible for all of her loans and that Raymond was harmless for the entire amount.

"This case presents a recurring problem for trial and appellate courts, namely, what should be the decisional standard for dividing a part of the marital estate when the parties by agreement have divided the balance," Judge James S. Kirsch wrote for the unanimous panel.

Judge Kirsch pointed out a number of questions arose from this case and situation, such as how a court divides the balance, how it knows if the previous division was fair and reasonable, and if it should try to equalize the remaining assets' division if that previous agreement was unfair.

"We hold that, in the absence of an agreement of the parties to the contrary, where the parties divide between themselves a part of the marital estate and leave the division of the balance to the discretion of the trial court, the trial court should assume that the property that the parties have already divided was divided justly and reasonably and shall divide the remainder ... as if they were the entirety of the marital estate," Judge Kirsch wrote.

The court should determine if the 50/50 presumption under state law should apply, and if so then it should divide the assets and liabilities equally. By doing that, the parties can maximize the value of their settlement and the trial court has the basis for its property division that conforms with state law, the judge wrote.

In the instant case, the trial court erred by assigning the student loans to Thelma on the basis that she has the degree and should now pay for it. Those loans were marital obligations, Judge Kirsch wrote, and the decision was vacated for the lower court to determine whether the student debt should be divided in half or another way.
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