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In re Marriage of Stinger

Supreme Court of Montana

July 9, 2019

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF: STACEY A. STINGER, Petitioner and Appellant, and BRUCE F. STINGER, Respondent and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: June 12, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twentieth Judicial District, In and For the County of Lake, Cause No. DR-15-117 Honorable James A. Manley, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Anna Hilly McGahan, SAFE Harbor, Polson, Montana

          For Appellee: David C. Humphrey, Humphrey Law Office, Polson, Montana



         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Stacey Stinger appeals the District Court's final decree dissolving her marriage to Bruce Stinger. Stacey challenges the court's refusal to award her maintenance, its valuation and distribution of the marital estate, and its failure to enter judgment awarding attorney fees to Stacey on the court's prior ruling in her favor. We affirm the denial of maintenance and reverse and remand on the other two issues.

         ¶3 Stacey and Bruce married in 2003, but had been together raising their blended family since 1992. Stacey petitioned for dissolution in 2015, by which time the children were grown. Stacey, forty-four at the time of dissolution, earns an annual income of $35, 780. Bruce, fifty at the time of dissolution, earns $63, 740 annually, plus additional wages when he is the lead on a particular job with his employer. The District Court found Bruce's prospects for future pay raises to be good and his ability to earn outside income to be greater than Stacey's. The parties have modest assets and considerable debt. The District Court acknowledged that, even with Bruce making the mortgage payments during the pendency of the case, Stacey had difficulty paying her monthly expenses. The court awarded to Bruce his automotive and windshield replacement tools, which it found to be the parties' only income-producing property. It concluded that, because Bruce earns roughly twice the amount of Stacey's income, "it is equitable to award Stacey a greater share of the marital assets in order to provide her a means to become self-supporting, and to pay off her substantial debt." The court thus determined to award Bruce "less property" than that awarded to Stacey and to assign him "more debt" than that assigned to Stacey. Because of its distribution of assets and debts, the court declined to award maintenance.

         ¶4 We review for clear error a district court's findings of fact in a dissolution case. In re Marriage of Crowley, 2014 MT 42, ¶ 24, 374 Mont. 48, 318 P.3d 1031. Section 40-4-202(1), MCA, requires a district court to "equitably apportion" a marital estate upon dissolution. Though not without limits, a district court has broad discretion in apportioning the estate. In re Marriage of Clark, 2015 MT 263, ¶ 12, 381 Mont. 50, 357 P.3d 314. "A district court does not need to make a specific finding of the net worth of the marital estate; instead, the court must make findings sufficient for this Court to determine the net worth and review whether the marital distribution is equitable." In re Marriage of Crowley, ¶ 26.

         ¶5 Stacey challenges the District Court's valuation and distribution of various assets and debts. "A district court has discretion to adopt any reasonable valuation of marital property that is supported by the evidence." Schwartz v. Harris, 2013 MT 145, ¶ 23, 370 Mont. 294, 308 P.3d 949 (citing In re Marriage of Hedges, 2002 MT 204, ¶ 21, 311 Mont. 230, 53 P.3d 1273). Having reviewed the record, we conclude that most of the valuations are supported by substantial credible evidence, but that clear error in several of the District Court's findings requires vacating the decree and remanding for additional findings and a new analysis of the distribution of property and debt. We consider each of Stacey's challenges.

         Sale of stock car

         ¶6 Bruce sold one of his two stock cars, a marital asset, for $7, 000. From the proceeds, $3, 882.93 was used to pay joint tax liability owed to the IRS. The court ordered that the remainder-$3, 112.07-be used, along with some of the proceeds from the sale of the parties' marital home, to pay down $7, 000 in joint consumer loan debt.[1] The court assigned the full amount of the loan to Bruce, without deducting the $7, 000 ordered to be paid down on the loan from other marital assets or attributing those assets to Bruce. We conclude that the District Court's treatment of the $7, 000 was clear error. Bruce received the benefit of the reduction of the debt assigned to him. The trial court should have accounted for this benefit either by reducing the debt assigned to Bruce accordingly or assigning to Bruce $7, 000 in assets from the sale of the stock car and the sale of the marital home.

         ¶7 Given the District Court's finding that Stacey should receive a greater portion of the assets and less of the debt, this error requires reversal for the court to reevaluate the distribution of property and debt. For example, the District Court calculated that it assigned $18, 285 in debt to Stacey and $25, 849 to Bruce. With the correction of $7, 000, the value of the debt assigned to Bruce is $18, 849, not $25, 849.

         Value of proceeds from sale of marital ...

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