ILNews

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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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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