Justices affirm division of marital assets

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The Indiana Supreme Court has determined a trial court didn’t err in its method of dividing up assets between a divorced Hendricks County couple, parting ways with the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Indiana.

Elizabeth Roetter and Michael Roetter married in May 2014 with no prenuptial agreement.

Michael’s premarital assets included an individual retirement account valued at more than $82,000, a 401(k) valued at $383,000 and two life insurance policies. But Elizabeth entered the marriage with more than $100,000 in student loan debt for an incomplete college education.

The marriage produced two children, born in 2014 and 2017, and Elizabeth quit her job and devoted herself as a full-time caregiver, per the couple’s agreement. One of the children has autism and requires several types of therapy.

Michael worked outside the home during the marriage and earned an annual salary of more than $100,000.

Elizabeth filed for divorce in October 2019. The parties agreed on custody arrangements, parenting time and child support but disagreed over spousal maintenance and distribution of the marital estate.

The wife sought $100 in weekly spousal maintenance for three years due to the level of care required for their autistic child along with 55% of the marital estate, half of the full value of the two retirement accounts and for Michael to assume half of her student loan debt. But Michael objected to the maintenance request and requested the full value of both retirement accounts, save for 50% of the 401(k)’s increase in value during the marriage.

The Hendricks Circuit Court granted Elizabeth’s request for spousal maintenance but ordered Michael to pay her $100 per week for 18 months rather than three years. Additionally, in “lieu of additional ‘monthly maintenance’ payments,” the court ordered Elizabeth to “retain the $12,000 advance” she had received toward her “anticipated share” of the marital assets.

In August 2021, the Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. The panel held that given the $12,000 advance Elizabeth had received, the trial court properly exercised its discretion in ordering Michael to pay spousal maintenance for 18 months.

However, the COA also held the trial court abused its discretion in dividing the marital estate, determining the trial court’s “individualized allocations” of the retirement accounts to Michael and student loan debt to Elizabeth essentially resulted in a 75%-25% split, creating a “gross disparity” that “skewed” in the husband’s favor.

Finding the trial court’s analysis deficient, the lower appellate panel then pointed to “other statutory factors” that weighed “significantly” in Elizabeth’s favor. Thus, the panel remanded with instructions for the trial court for a remedy “closer to the fifty-five, forty-five split” requested by Elizabeth.

But on transfer, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in its award of spousal maintenance or in its division of property.

“While sympathetic to Wife’s argument, we affirm the trial court’s judgment on (the spousal maintenance) issue,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote. “To be sure, the facts Wife relies on may be relevant to an analysis of a trial court’s award of custodial maintenance. … But Wife challenges only the trial court’s award of rehabilitative maintenance, which aims to remedy a spouse’s earning capacity following an interruption in education and employment ‘during the marriage.’

“… What’s more, Wife offered no evidence — and raises no arguments — on whether her future employment requires any education or training, let alone the time and expense necessary for that education or training,” the court concluded, also noting that Elizabeth’s maintenance award of $19,800 exceeded the requested amount of $15,600.

On the division of marital property, justices also determined the trial court properly considered all relevant factors under the division-of-property statute.

“In dividing the martial estate, the trial court here expressly found that the marriage was short-term, that Wife acted as the children’s primary caregiver during the marriage, that she ‘brought very few assets to the marriage,’ that she failed to advise Husband of the student-loan debt she incurred prior to the marriage, that Husband ‘received no benefit’ from Wife’s education, and that Wife ‘is capable of earning income’ of up to ‘$30,000,’” Goff wrote.

“… These findings either correspond with the relevant factors under our Division-of-Property Statute or find support in our case law,” he continued. “… To be sure, as the Court of Appeals observed, certain facts may have supported a distribution more favorable to the Wife. … But, at the end of the day, the standard of review precludes us from substituting our judgement for that of the trial court.”

Further, the Supreme Court determined that so long as it considers all assets and debts, and so long as it offers sufficient findings to rebut the presumptive equal division, the trial court didn’t need to apply a technical formula in dividing the marital estate.

The case is Elizabeth Roetter v. Michael P. Roetter, Jr., 21S-DC-568.

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