In re the Marriage of Steyh

In re the Marriage of Steyh, 2013 MT 175 (July 2, 2013) (5-0) McGrath, C.J.

Issue: Whether the district court properly denied William’s Rule 60(b) motion.

Short Answer: No.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Julie and William married in March 2010. In January 2012, Julie filed a pro se dissolution  and submitted a detailed proposed distribution of marital assets awarding William ownership of a house and real property the couple owned. William was served with process and did not object to the dissolution or Julie’s proposed distribution of assets The clerk entered William’s default on Feb. 8, 2012.

Julie requested a final hearing pursuant to § 40-4-202, MCA. Both parties appeared pro se. Prior to the hearing, the district court ordered the parties to meet with a special master and court-appointed mediator, which they did.

Procedural Posture & Holding: After the final hearing, the district court granted Julie’s petition and issued Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Final Decree with one amendment that required William to pay Julie $30,000 over three years. William filed a Rule 60(b) motion to set aside the judgment, which was deemed denied after 60 days. Thereafter, the district court issued an order explaining why Julie’s proposed distribution was inequitable. William appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: In all dissolution proceedings, even by default, the court has an independent obligation to ensure the distribution of assets is equitable. It may consider any relevant factor, but it must consider the factors listed in § 40-4-202.

William was not given notice that the court might award Julie more than she had requested in her petition. Rule 60(b)(1) allows for relief from a judgment based on mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. Given William’s surprise, the district court should have set aside the judgment and rescheduled a final hearing providing William a meaningful opportunity to be heard and present argument.