Virginia Equitable Distribution: Negative Nonmonetary Contributions Illustrated . . . or Why You Should Be Nice to Heather

Can you get a bigger portion of the marital property in a divorce case in Virginia if your spouse has been a jerk throughout the marriage?

In Crater v. Crater, Record No. 1933-12-3 (Va. Ct. App. 2013), at issue was the property division of a couple that had been married for 24 years and jointly operated a local dairy.  The wife in that case brought into the marriage her daughter from another relationship, Heather.  Husband promptly withdrew himself from his stepdaughter’s life altogether.  He provided her with food, shelter and clothing, but almost nothing more.  He refused to drive her anywhere, which meant that she couldn’t participate in after school activities because the wife had to work nights.  He never visited her at college and moved into the garage any time she came back home to visit during college.  He did not attend her graduation from college and he was furious when he heard that the wife intended on visiting her daughter in Germany, which is where she relocated to after graduation.  Simply put, the husband didn’t lift a finger for his stepdaughter and actively removed himself from her life altogether, which obviously negatively affected his relationship with his wife.

The wife obviously made a big deal about the husband’s failed relationship with her daughter in their divorce trial.  The trial court made a big deal about it, too, by awarding wife 55 % of the marital estate.  But was the court allowed to punish the husband for his withdrawal from his stepdaughter?  If so, is it normal for courts to do so?

The Virginia Court of Appeals, hearing the case upon the husband’s appeal, said that the court did not err in taking into account the husband’s refusal to have any relationship with his stepdaughter in distributing the marital estate.  Va. Code § 20-107.3(E) outlines the factors that the court must consider in distributing the marital estate, which factors include at least three that the trial court could have relied upon in awarding the wife more of the marital estate:

“1. The contributions, monetary and nonmonetary, of each party to the well-being of the family; . . .

5. The circumstances and factors which contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, specifically including any ground for divorce under the provisions of subdivisions (1), (3) or (6) of § 20-91 or § 20-95; . . .

11. Such other factors as the court deems necessary or appropriate to consider in order to arrive at a fair and equitable monetary award.”

In this case, the husband’s behavior constituted a negative nonmonetary contribution to the well-being of the family that contributed to the dissolution of the marriage and was otherwise an appropriate factor for the court to consider in order to arrive at its monetary award.  As such, the trial court did not err in awarding the husband less than half the marital estate even though the trial court made no finding that the husband’s behavior did not impact the value of the marital estate.  See Ranney v. Ranney, 45 Va. App. 17 (2005).

Needless to say, this decision hardly stands for the proposition that courts regularly divide the marital estate unequally upon ample evidence that one spouse was a jerk.  Indeed, the husband’s behavior in this case was so extraordinary that it far exceeded the typical boorish behavior courts discount in almost every divorce case.  The husband in this case contributed nothing to the family except for his monetary contributions, which contributions were equaled but his wife who also found the time to contribute everything towards the family’s nonmonetary well-being.  In fact, the sheer fact that the trial court didn’t award her more than 55 % of the marital estate given these facts illustrates how hard it is to convince trial courts to deviate from an equal distribution of the marital estate.