COA rules assets unfairly distributed in divorce

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a lower court erred in its distribution of assets and debts between a divorced Hendricks County couple.

In Elizabeth Roetter v. Michael P. Roetter, Jr., 20A-DC-2150, ex-wife Elizabeth Roetter presented two issues: whether the Hendricks Circuit Court abused its discretion when it awarded her 18 months of maintenance rather than three years, and whether the trial court erred when it determined what property to include in the marital estate.

The Roetters married on May 9, 2014, and went on to have two children. Michael had significantly more assets than Elizabeth at the time of marriage, but the couple did not execute a premarital agreement.

Specifically, the husband’s premarital assets included a State Farm Whole Life IRA with a value of $82,364, a 401K account with a value of $383,000 and two Tri-Vest life insurance policies. For her part, Elizabeth entered the marriage carrying more than $100,000 in student loan debt from her attendance at Bowling Green State University.

In October 2020, one year after the couple separated, Michael was awarded the values that his 401K, IRA and two Tri-Vest life insurance policies held at the time he was married. The court also assigned Elizabeth the student loan debt she brought into the marriage. The court then calculated the value of the remaining assets in the marital estate at $748,504, and the value of the marital estate’s remaining debts as $174,665.

The court awarded Elizabeth 55% of the remaining value of the marital estate “[d]ue to the disparity of the party’s [sic] income and earning abilities.” The trial court further ruled that the wife would receive a $12,000 “advance” toward her anticipated share of the division of the marital assets.  Michael would also pay Elizabeth $100 per week for a period of 18 months beginning the first Friday after the issuance of the order.

On the issue of maintenance pay, the Court of Appeals affirmed that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in fashioning the maintenance award.

But as to the second issue, the Court of Appeals found the distribution of assets and debts between Elizabeth and Michael was “unjust and unreasonable.”

Specifically, the appellate court ruled that the assets and debts were “skewed” by the trial court. It cited Wallace v. Wallace, 714 N.E.2d 774 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), reh’g denied, trans. denied, in its reasoning for reversal and remand.

“In the instant case, the trial court listed Husband’s premarital assets in the dissolution decree, but pursuant to Indiana Code section 31-15-7-5, the trial court set these assets aside and awarded them to the Husband,” Judge Melissa May wrote Friday. “The trial court also listed (Elizabeth’s) student loans as a debt in the dissolution decree, but it set the debt aside and assigned it to Wife.

“These individualized allocations skewed the trial court’s ultimate division of the marital estate heavily in Husband’s favor,” May continued. “Husband was awarded essentially seventy-five percent of the net gross marital estate and Wife was left with approximately twenty-five percent.”

The facts and circumstances before the trial court clearly indicated that Elizabeth was entitled to a share of the marital estate larger than what she received, May wrote, adding that the trial court should fashion a remedy closer to 55%-45% split.

On remand, the trial court must also consider the $12,000 payment made while the divorce was pending as a payment made in lieu of additional maintenance, not as a considered part of the split.

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