Opinion:Bills v. Bills, 2022 OK CIV APP 27
Subject matter:Family Law–Dissolution of Marriage
Date Decided:May 23, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Tulsa County; Judge Morrison
Route to this Court:Husband appealed from portions of the trial court’s decree of dissolution of marriage. Wife counter-appealed from the trial court’s decision to deny her request for attorney fees.
Facts:Husband was found to be willfully underemployed and imputed Husband’s income at $6,400 per month for purposes of child support. Wife’s separated E Trade account was valued at $71,320.00 and awarded her this amount as her separate property. Husband borrowed $234,000 covertly and $87,000 of that was used to support the family. The remaining $147,500 was treated as depleted marital estate. This amount was comprised of a $75,000 equity line of credit on the marital residence, a $25,000 loan from Wife’s uncle, a $30,000 loan from Wife’s parents, and a $17,500 loan from Husband’s stepfather. Wife was ordered responsible for the $55,000 in loans taken from her family members, the remaining $92,500 was credited to Husband as a portion of the marital estate already received.

Husband was awarded $249,405.11 in marital assets from the total marital estate value of $488,271.30. Wife was awarded $276,366.20 after the $55,000 was deducted from her award. Because of Husband’s actions, the trial court determined that granting Wife the greater share was fair and equitable.
Standard of Review:In a divorce action, the trial court is vested with wide discretion in dividing property. McLaughlin v. McLaughlin, 1999 OK 34, ¶12. On appeal, the Court will not disturb the trial court’s judgment regarding property division unless the trial court has abused its discretion or has entered a decision that is clearly contrary to the weight of the evidence. Id. The appealing party has the burden to show the trial court’s findings and judgment are against the clear weight of the evidence. Id. The Court will not disturb the trial court’s decision concerning attorney fees unless there has been an abuse of discretion. Merritt v. Merritt, 2003 OK 68, ¶20.
Analysis:The Court agreed with Wife’s argument that the trial court properly characterized the Husband’s $92,500 marital debt award as marital assets already received by Husband due to his concealment and unilateral depletion of the marital estate. The uncontested evidence showed that Husband had total control of the family’s finances and ran all the accounts while concealing his unemployment. 43 O.S. 2021 §121 standard is that the division of property be just and reasonable, and here awarding Husband the debt and offsetting the Wife’s award by the $55,000 against her estate was fair.

In regard to calculating the amount of the premarital E Trade account value, the trial court did not comport with the decision in Thielenhaus v. Thielenhaus, 1995 OK 5, which held that when the account’s value increased due to factors outside the efforts of either of the spouses control, the property cannot be treated as a divisible marital asset without showing that the value increased from one of the spouse’s efforts. The non-owning spouse has the burden to show that the enhancement in value is the result of either of their endeavors. This was not argued at trial, so the Court did not change the trial court’s decision regarding the E Trade account.

The Court also held that 43 O.S. 2012 §121’s language of equitable does not mean equal. This was in accordance with Childers v. Childers, 2016 OK 95, ¶22, which held that division of marital estate does not need to be equal in order to be just and reasonable. Given Husband’s dishonest behavior, the trial court’s decision to award Wife a greater portion of the marital assets was not an abuse of discretion. In conclusion, the Court determined that because both parties’ actions contributed to the escalation of litigation and attorney’s fees, there was no compelling reason to award either party attorney fees.
Vote:3-0. Goree, J., Swinton, J., and Bell, J. (author), concur.
Other: N/A