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Rhode Island Supreme Court Holds Cause Not Shown in Divorce Appeal

In a recent Rhode Island family law case, the defendant appealed from a family court decision following a divorce proceeding. The trial judge found the marital estate to be essentially nonexistent, and further found that a majority of the disputed assets belonged squarely to the plaintiff. Defendant disagreed, arguing that the trial judge erred in failing to identify various assets as marital property subject to equitable distribution at divorce.

The case came before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, following an order requiring the parties to  show cause why the issues should not be decided summarily. The state high court concluded that cause was not shown and that the case could be decided without further argument. The court affirmed in part and vacated in part and remanded for further proceedings.the

Plaintiff and defendant met in the summer of 2012. A few months later, they decided to get married. Before the wedding, however, the defendant told the plaintiff that they could not be legally married because his divorce from his third wife was not yet finalized California. This fact upset the plaintiff, a Chinese citizen.

In October 2013, the parties were married in Rhode Island, and then applied for the plaintiff’s temporary green card. When the plaintiff submitted her application in December, the parties were legally married, but the defendant was not sufficiently above the poverty line to sponsor the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s family sent money, and plaintiff’s green card application was subsequently approved.

A few years later, the marital relationship started to unravel; the plaintiff and defendant began living separate lives. In December 2015, the plaintiff filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. In June 2016, the defendant filed a counterclaim for divorce. In October 2016, the case went to trial.

The trial judge issued a bench decision in the fall of 2016. She granted both the complaint and the counterclaim for divorce, and denied the defendant’s request for counsel fees. In November 2016, the trial judge entered a decision pending entry of final judgment. Defendant appealed.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial justice erred when she (1) misconstrued marital assets; (2) failed to apply the required factors in deciding on equitable distribution of marital property under § 15-5-16.1; and (3) failed to address the relevant factors in deciding whether counsel fees were appropriate for the defendant under § 15-5-16.

Defendant maintained that the trial judge incorrectly identified two assets as nonmarital property: (1) plaintiff’s bank accounts; and (2) the value of plaintiff’s BMW.

§ 15-5-16.1(b) prohibits the trial judge from assigning three categories of property: (1) property held by the party before marriage; (2) property that has transferred to one of the parties by inheritance at any time; and (3) property that has been transferred to one of the parties by gift at any time.

The court held that the plaintiff’s car plainly fell within the first category because it was property held by plaintiff prior to the marriage. Therefore, it qualified as nonmarital property, and the trial judge was barred from assigning any interest in the car to the defendant.

Regarding the bank accounts, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that because, after excluding the $38,000 from the marital estate, the $19,500 remaining in the plaintiff’s individual account was a marital asset, it should have been distributed according to the parties’ stipulation. The court therefore remanded for the family court to do so.

Next, the state high court held was clear from the record that the trial judge expressly addressed all factors enumerated in § 15-5-16(b) regarding counsel fees. She therefore did not err in denying defendant’s request for counsel fees.

For these reasons, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part the family court decision pending entry of final judgment, and remanded for further proceedings.

Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC’s skilled family law attorneys are prepared to help Rhode Island residents navigate their divorces. Call (401) 400-8182 to schedule your complimentary consultation today.

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