In re the Marriage of Richards & Trusler

In re the Marriage of Richards & Trusler, 2015 MT 314 (Nov. 5, 2015) (Cotter, J.; Rice, J., concurring) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court abused its discretion in apportioning the marital estate.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed and remanded for a new trial

Facts: Vanessa Richards and Ernest Trusler began their relationship in 1991, had three children between 1992-2000, and formally married in May 2008. They held themselves out as married beginning in 1992, when their oldest child, TR, was born. TR was severely disabled and required full-time care until his death in August 2014. Richards and Trusler agreed that Richards would care for TR.

Richards and Trusler lived on the Trusler Ranch until 2003. The ranch is owned by the family corporation, which was valued at $7.2 million at the time of the dissolution. Trusler became a minority shareholder of the corporation in 1992, an office in 1994 and a director in 1996. He has worked as a ranch hand since 1990, for which he is paid a salary, provided housing, a vehicle and health insurance for himself and his family, an annual Costco account and other benefits.

Richards petitioned for dissolution in December 2011, and the parties stipulated to a final parenting plan in May 2014.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held a bench trial in May and July 2014, and issued findings, conclusions and a decree in August 2014. It valued the marital estate at $2,100,666, of which $207,644 was awarded to Richards and $1,890,322 was awarded to Trusler. Richards appeals and the Supreme Court reverses. 

Reasoning: Trusler’s ownership share of the ranch corporation grew from 1.375% in 1992 to 24.229% in 2014. The corporation restricts stock transfers. Trusler inherited property worth about $200,000 during the marriage, and he and his siblings are beneficiaries of a trust that will distribute assets to them upon their mother’s death or remarriage. Richards acquired relatively few assets of her own during the marriage.

Richards’ equalization payment of $100,00 constitutes less than 6% of Trusler’s interest in the ranch, which was worth $1,732,015 at the time of dissolution. Her entire award of $207,644 is slightly more than 10% of the net marital estate. She contends these are inequitable, and the Court agrees. Equitable does not mean equal; nonetheless, the district court noted Richards’ extraordinary contribution to TR, observed she had no retirement funds and would probably not qualify for future social security benefits. The dissolution resulted in Richards losing her “financial underpinning.” The Court therefore reverses and remands for a new trial on the equitable division of the marital estate, including the possibility of maintenance pursuant to § 40-4-203, MCA.

Justice Rice’s Concurrence: The Court correctly determines that the district court did not misapply Funk. “Instead, the Court reverses based upon what is, in reality, only a subjective feeling that the property distribution is simply not equitable.” ¶ 34. Justice Rice joins the Court’s decision reluctantly. The bulk of the marital estate was from land that Trusler inherited, which the district court analyzed under Funk. However, Richards’ extensive care of TR, at the expense of her own career, enabled Trusler to dedicate his efforts to the ranch and eventually gain an extensive ownership interest in it. This fact persuades Justice Rice that the district court’s apportionment was inequitable.