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In re Marriage of Parker

Supreme Court of Montana

July 16, 2013

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF BETH M. PARKER, Petitioner and Appellant,
JAMES G. PARKER, Respondent and Appellee. and

Submitted on Briefs May 29, 2013

APPEAL FROM District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and For the County of Missoula, Cause No. DR-11-18 Honorable Robert L. Deschamps, III, Presiding Judge

For Appellant Terry Wallace, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana.

For Appellee Jamie J. McKittrick, Wells & McKittrick, Missoula, Montana.

Laurie McKinnon Justice

¶1 Beth Parker appeals from an Order of the District Court for the Fourth Judicial District, Missoula County, upholding the Standing Master's Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in the parties' dissolution action. We affirm.

¶2 The parties raise the following issues on appeal:

¶3 1. Whether the District Court abused its discretion by excluding Jim's interest in his mother's trust from the marital estate.

¶4 2. Whether the parties entered into a post-nuptial agreement.

¶5 3. Whether the District Court equitably distributed the marital estate pursuant to § 40-4-202, MCA.

¶6 4. Whether Jim is entitled to attorney's fees and costs on appeal in this matter.

Factual and Procedural Background

¶7 The parties were legally married on June 18, 1999. At the time of the parties' marriage, Beth owned her own home and lived there with her two minor children from a previous marriage. Beth contends that the parties were actually married by common law one year earlier, on or about July 1, 1998, when she claims Jim moved into her home. Jim claims, however, that he did not move into Beth's home until after their June 1999 marriage. No children were born to the parties during their marriage.

¶8 In December 2001, the parties decided to move into a home that Jim had purchased in the Rattlesnake area of Missoula, and to sell Beth's home. The proceeds from the sale of Beth's home were used to pay bills and for other expenses.

¶9 Both Beth and Jim worked throughout their marriage. Beth originally worked at Mountain Press Publishing, but she left that position and returned to school. She obtained a graduate degree that allowed her to provide professional counseling services. Beth is now a counselor in private practice. Jim owns his own company, Westridge Creative, LLC. He also worked part-time for the nonprofit organization Tamarack Grief Resource Center. Both parties testified that they contributed to Jim's business over the course of their marriage. And, both parties testified that they used their credit cards to take various trips and to pay for marital expenses.

¶10 Jim received an inheritance from his godfather during the marriage. Jim testified that some of this money was used to pay off part of the parties' credit card debt, and the remainder was used for "household needs and goods." In addition, Jim's mother gifted him money at regular intervals. Jim testified that this money went toward "household uses and expenses." Also, Jim's mother had a trust entitled the Elizabeth G. Parker Trust which originally provided that after her death, any remaining trust property should go to her husband, or, if he did not survive her, then to her issue—i.e., Jim and his brother.

¶11 The parties lived together in the Rattlesnake home until the date of their separation, January 2010, when Beth moved out. Beth filed a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage on January 7, 2011, and the matter was referred to Standing Master Susan Leaphart on February 17, 2011.

¶12 Jim continued to live in the Rattlesnake home paying the mortgage, maintenance and all other expenses related to the home until September 2011. Jim testified that at that time, he and Beth agreed that neither party would live in the home, that they would share the cost of the mortgage, and that they would sell the home. Beth and Jim listed the home with a realtor for $325, 000. They reduced the listing price several times until it was finally listed at $275, 000. Jim testified that there was a mortgage on the home in the amount of $130, 000. In November 2011, Beth decided to move back into the Rattlesnake home, and advised the realtor to take the home off the market.

¶13 On December 14, 2011, the District Court issued an Order denying Beth's motion for inclusion of Jim's mother's trust in the marital estate. The court determined that any interest Jim might receive from the trust did not impact the marital estate because Jim's interest had not vested. Instead, the court determined that Jim's interest in the trust was contingent because the trust could be modified by his mother at any time.

¶14 An evidentiary hearing was held before the Standing Master on April 27, 2012. Thereafter, the Standing Master filed her Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on June 5, 2012, wherein she determined that the Rattlesnake home should be sold, and that the parties pay from the proceeds of the sale the underlying note, the realtor's fees, the parties' credit card debt and the back taxes. After payment of all of these items, the parties would split the remainder. The Standing Master also determined that each party should be responsible for their own student loan debt and business loans.

¶15 Beth filed her objections to the Standing Master's findings and conclusions on June 18, 2012. She specifically objected to the conclusion that the marital home should be sold and the proceeds split between the parties. She argued that she has no ability to acquire future income and assets, and that pursuant to § 40-4-202, MCA, the home should be awarded to her. Beth also argued that the findings and conclusions favored Jim at her expense because the back taxes owing were Jim's share of the parties' tax obligation, and that Jim stopped paying for his share of the credit card debt several months prior to the hearing in this matter leaving Beth to make all of the payments. Thus, Beth complained that under the Standing Master's findings and conclusions, Beth would be assuming a larger portion of the parties' debt than Jim.

¶16 Jim responded to Beth's objections arguing that the Standing Master, after considering all of the evidence, equitably distributed all assets and liabilities of both parties and chose not to award the marital home to Beth. In addition, Jim pointed out that Beth did not provide any evidence to indicate that the back taxes were Jim's obligation exclusively.

ΒΆ17 A hearing on Beth's objections was held on September 10, 2012. On September 17, 2012, Beth moved to reopen the evidentiary hearing to permit discovery and presentation of evidence regarding Jim's interest in his mother's trust. Beth argued that because there had already been some distribution of the trust to Jim, at least some part of the trust had vested in Jim. Thus, according to Beth, the District ...

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