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Rhode Island Favors Rehabilitative Alimony

In the mid-1980s, an ex-husband challenged the trial court’s finding that he was at fault for the dissolution of his marriage and the court’s award to the ex-wife of his interest in the marital home, rehabilitative alimony, and her attorney fees. This Rhode Island Supreme Court case is an important holding regarding rehabilitative alimony, and in Rhode Island family law.

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The trial court awarded the wife an absolute divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and the husband’s extreme cruelty. The court further awarded the wife custody of their minor child, assigned to the wife the husband’s interest in the marital residence, ordered the husband to pay child support, and required the husband to pay alimony and his wife’s counsel fees. The Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in part but remanded the case for further consideration with respect to the award of alimony. It further vacated the award of counsel fees.

The husband and the wife were married in the summer of 1959 and then had three children together. One of the three children was a minor at the time of the divorce proceedings. According to the testimony, the marriage started to fall apart in 1980. The wife filed for divorce and the parties separated pursuant to an ex parte restraining order issued against the husband.

On appeal, the husband first challenged the trial court’s determination that he was at fault for the devolution of the marriage.

The trial judge found that the husband had physically and verbally abused the wife, was guilty of excessive drinking, and had engaged in extramarital affairs. The trial judge attached no weight to the testimony of the husband’s witnesses who attempted to show that the wife was not faithful after the separation but before the divorce was final.

The state high court first held that the record overwhelmingly established that the trial justice did not err in finding that the husband was at fault.

Second, the husband challenged the award compelling him to assign to his wife his equitable interest in the marital domicile, which he owned with her as a joint tenant. In support, the husband first asserted that Rhode Island’s equitable-distribution statute contains language that should prevent a trial court from assigning all of one spouse’s estate to the other spouse. The state high court dismissed this argument “for the very obvious reason” that the husband’s interest did not make up his entire estate. The court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the wife a portion of the husband’s estate after considering each element of the statutory criteria of § 15-5-16.1.

The husband further argued that because he earned significantly more money than the wife during the last nine years of the marriage, such increased earnings should have been given more weight in the determination of what had been contributed by each party to the estate. The trial judge, the state high court reasoned, knew that the husband earned more than the wife, and considered with equal weight the value of the wife’s services as a homemaker as well as the money she contributed from various jobs as a nurse. In so doing, the state high court held he committed no error.

The husband next contended the trial justice weighted the element of fault too heavily in deciding the husband’s interest in the marital domicile. The court held that there was nothing in the trial justice’s decision to indicate that fault was given inappropriate significance in deciding the husband’s interest. Thus, this claim lacked merit.

The court next addressed the husband’s claim that the trial judge erred in requiring the husband to pay alimony of $25 a week. The court explained that alimony should be payable for a short, but specific, period of time, which will cease when the recipient is in a position of self-support after exercising reasonable efforts. The court remanded the issue of alimony to the trial judge for reconsideration in accordance with the notion of “rehabilitative alimony.

The court next turned to the husband’s claim that the trial justice erred in ordering the husband to pay the wife’s counsel fees. In light of the probability that the marital domicile could so be used to generate funds, the court vacated that part of the judgment that ordered the husband to pay the cost of his wife’s attorney fees.

The final issue was the husband’s argument that the trial judge should not have allowed the wife’s eldest son to testify.

At the hearing, the trial justice allowed the testimony of the son de bene. The husband’s counsel objected, arguing that his client would be prejudiced because the son had not been available for deposition, meaning his credibility could not be adequately attacked. The trial judge allowed the witness, reasoning that the wife did not consciously intend to present the son as a surprise witness. Further, he found the son’s testimony to be cumulative.

In light of the limited time the wife had to communicate to the husband regarding the son’s testimony, as well as the fact that such testimony was cumulative, the state high court could held the trial judge did not commit prejudicial error in allowing the son to testify.

Accordingly, the husband’s appeal was denied in part and sustained in part. The judgment with respect to counsel fees was vacated, and the case was remanded to the family court for further consideration on the issue of rehabilitative alimony.

Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC’s accomplished family law attorneys are prepared to assist Rhode Island residents in navigating issues of alimony during their divorce proceedings. Call (401) 400-8182 to schedule a consultation today.

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