June 21, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Student Loan Debt Improperly Characterized as Income for Maintenance Determination

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Morton on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

In this dissolution action, husband and wife were married for approximately six years. During the marriage and after the parties separated but before permanent orders entered, wife attended school to become a radiological technologist and later took a sonogram course. She took out student loans for her schooling. In dividing marital property, the trial court concluded that wife’s student loan debt was her separate debt because it was incurred after the parties’ separation and it was not “fair or equitable” to treat the debt as marital. Wife contended this was an abuse of discretion, and the court of appeals agreed, finding any debt incurred during a pre-decree separation was marital. The court remanded for the district court to first treat the student loan debt as marital and then decide equitable distribution as part of the overall property distribution.

Wife also contended the trial court erred by considering her student loans a financial resource in determining the maintenance award, and the court of appeals again agreed. By considering the loan proceeds as income, the trial court ignored the need for the loans to be repayed with interest. The court determined that by allowing loan proceeds to be counted as income, the trial court thwarted the purpose of the maintenance statute. The court of appeals remanded for reconsideration of the maintenance award without considering the student loans as a financial resource or income of any kind.

Wife further contended the trial court erred in determining the maintenance award before fully dividing the parties’ marital and separate property, and the court of appeals again agreed, noting that the maintenance award depends on its findings and order dividing property. Without first dividing the property, the court cannot reasonably determine the requesting party’s maintenance needs.

Because the court remanded on the issues of maintenance and the division of marital property, it set aside the trial court’s attorney fee award. On remand, after dividing property and determining a maintenance award, the trial court could reconsider an award of attorney fees. The court of appeals instructed the trial court to base its decision on the parties’ financial circumstances at the time of remand.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Separate Property Remained Separate Despite Use to Pay Marital Debts

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Corak on Thursday, October 23, 2014.

Marital Property—Marital Debt Allocations.

Husband and wife entered into a prenuptial agreement identifying separate property that each had acquired before the marriage. This separate property included a parcel of husband’s property (Shoshone property). The agreement stated that all separate property would remain as such.

Shortly after marrying, husband and wife jointly bought a piece of property (Pinyon property). Husband pledged the Shoshone property as collateral for a home equity line of credit for the down payment on the Pinyon property and the funds to remodel it. Husband and wife agreed to apply $16,000 from the credit line to retire one of wife’s premarital credit card debts. Husband and wife agreed that wife would make payments toward the line of credit.

Wife testified at the permanent orders hearing that she had made all of the payments on the credit line during the marriage, even beyond the amount she had used to retire her separate debt. She also testified that she had paid down some of her other premarital debts. Husband testified he paid down his separate debt during his marriage and admitted he had not disclosed the debt in the prenuptial agreement.

The district court ruled that husband’s act of pledging the Shoshone property as collateral for the line of credit turned a portion of it into marital property. The Court of Appeals found this to be an issue of first impression in Colorado. In looking to other jurisdictions, the Court found cases concluding that using separate property to secure a loan does not change the pledged property into marital property. The case was remanded for the trial court to determine the division of marital property and marital debt after setting aside all of the Shoshone property as husband’s separate property.

The Court agreed with husband that he had initially asked the trial court to restore the marital funds wife had spent to retire her separate premarital debt to the marital estate and credit them to her. However, after review of the record, the Court concluded that husband had intentionally abandoned this argument. Because the Court found husband had abandoned his claim to have these funds allocated differently, the Court will not disturb the trial court’s findings on appeal.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Reasonably Ascertainable Value of Accrued Vacation and Accrued Sick Leave May Be Divided in Dissolution of Marriage

PFM Individual Photos LWMBy Lesleigh W. Monahan

On January 13, 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Cardona and Castro. The supreme court granted certiorari review in this case to consider whether accrued vacation and sick leave may be considered marital property subject to division under C.R.S. § 14-10-113 of the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act (UDMA). The court considered this issue a matter of first impression in Colorado, noting, as did the court of appeals, that courts in other jurisdictions are split on this issue.

In Marriage of Cardona and Castro, wife raised the issue of husband’s accrued leave. The husband’s accrued leave had been reflected in his most recent pay stub, which indicated the total number of hours of vacation time and sick time that had accrued up until the date of dissolution. The pay stub did not indicate the cash value of the accrued leave or whether husband was entitled to cash payment for any portion of the leave. At the permanent orders hearing, the wife did not establish, nor did the husband render an opinion as to, whether husband was entitled to cash payment for any portion of the leave. In fact, the husband’s statements at the permanent orders hearing were somewhat vague and ambiguous as to his expectations—other than that he would be entitled to some form of pay for his accrued leave at the time of his termination.

The wife thereafter took the position that the husband’s accrued leave should be valued at $23,230.00. The trial court chose to divide the value of husband’s accrued vacation and sick leave as part of its division of the marital estate and required husband to pay wife $11,616.00 for “her interest in this pay.”

On appeal (which included additional issues other than those raised in the most recent supreme court opinion), the husband argued that accrued leave is not marital property. The divided panel of the court of appeals agreed and reversed. The majority reasoned that husband’s accrued leave was analogous to unvested stock options or an interest in a discretionary trust and “is thus not property subject to distribution on dissolution.” The case was remanded with direction to the trial court to reconsider the property division without considering husband’s accrued vacation and sick time. A petition for writ of certiorari, filed by wife, was granted on the following issue: “Whether the Court of Appeals erred in finding that accrued vacation and sick leave time is not marital property subject to division pursuant to section 14-10-113, C.R.S. (2010).”

The supreme court, in considering case law from other jurisdictions and relevant Colorado precedent, concluded that where a spouse has an enforceable right to be paid for accrued vacation or sick leave, as established by an employment agreement or policy, such accrued leave earned during the marriage is marital property for purposes of the UDMA. The court clarified that the value of such accrued leave at the time of dissolution must be equitably divided as part of the marital estate as long as such value can be reasonably ascertained at the time of dissolution. Alternatively, when a court cannot reasonably ascertain the value of such leave at the time of dissolution, the court should consider a spouse’s right to such leave as an economic circumstance of the parties when equitably dividing the marital estate. The supreme court found that there was not any competent evidence presented in the Cardona and Castro matter to establish that husband had an enforceable right to payment for his accrued leave and, accordingly, determined the trial court erred in considering the purported cash value of such leave as part of the marital estate. The court of appeals judgment was affirmed on narrower grounds.

The importance of this case to practitioners is clear in terms of trial preparation. As with other marital assets such as real estate, businesses, and retirement plans, it is essential for the practitioner to obtain accurate documentation and/or testimony from reliable sources such as the employer (as witness) and employer policies and procedures (as exhibits) relative to valuation of accrued sick time and leave. Based upon the detailed analysis in the supreme court decision, it will be critical for the trial court to assess whether the “value” of accrued vacation or sick leave, at the time of dissolution, may be so difficult to ascertain as to be speculative. Under many employment policies, different types of leave may be combined in one comprehensive paid time off plan, whereas other policies split vacation leave, sick leave, and personal leave into separate plans. Some employers allow leave to accrue and “roll over” from year to year, while others adopt a “use it or lose it” approach, under which accrued leave is forfeited if the employee does not take time off. Therefore, under this ruling, it is clear that accurate, demonstrative, and probative evidence must be presented to the trial court as to whether the value of accrued leave can be determined through a reasonable dollar estimate. If such an estimate cannot be demonstrated, it is clear that the accrued leave has speculative value that could lead a trial court to treat such leave as an “economic circumstance” under C.R.S. § 14-10-113(1)(c).

Justice Boatright concurred in the opinion but wrote separately to express two perceived errors in the reasoning of the majority opinion. The first relates to the inequity of “double counting” of accrued leave as both income and property. The second concern articulated by Justice Boatwright is that the ruling presents a contradiction in that “unlike calculating the present value of a pension, it will be nearly impossible to determine the present value of accrued leave.” Analysis would require consideration of a “bevy of speculative and indeterminate factors such as future illness, vacations, company policy, lifestyle changes, job changes, family needs and retirement.” In summary, the difficulties of valuing accrued leave led Justice Boatwright to the conclusion that it should be treated as income if the court orders child support and maintenance. Alternatively, if the court does not order child support or maintenance, it should only consider accrued leave as an “economic circumstance.”

Lesleigh W. Monahan, Esq. is a partner in the Lakewood firm of Polidori, Franklin & Monahan, LLC. Ms. Monahan has been practicing law exclusively in domestic relations since 1988. She received her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1987. Ms. Monahan has repeatedly been recognized for her accomplishments, and is a frequent speaker at continuing legal education programs. She was admitted as a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2004 and was president of the Colorado chapter in 2011/2012. Ms. Monahan is also a member of the CBA Family Law Section, and was chair of that section’s executive council in 2002-2003.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Colorado Supreme Court: Reasonably Ascertainable Value of Accrued Vacation and Sick Leave May Be Divided in Dissolution of Marriage

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Cardona and Castro on Monday, January 13, 2014.

Disposition of Property—Equitable Distribution of Marital Property—Accrued Leave.

The Supreme Court considered whether accrued vacation and sick leave may be considered marital property subject to division under CRS § 14-10-113 of the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act (UDMA). The Court held that where a spouse has an enforceable right to be paid for accrued vacation or sick leave, such accrued leave earned during the marriage is marital property. Where the value of such leave at the time of dissolution can be reasonably ascertained, it is subject to equitable division under the UDMA. However, where the value of such leave at the time of dissolution cannot be reasonably ascertained, the court should consider the employee spouse’s right to such leave as an economic circumstance of the parties when equitably dividing the marital estate.

In this case, the Court concluded that the trial court erred in considering the value of the spouse’s accrued leave as part of the marital estate because no competent evidence was presented to establish that the spouse had an enforceable right to payment for such leave. The Court therefore affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment on narrower grounds.

Summary and full case available here.