How Equitable Division Works in a Contested Florida Divorce Case
When a divorce is contested–that is, the parties cannot agree on key issues like the division of property or alimony–Florida law requires a judge to make certain “factual findings” before resolving the dispute. First, the judge needs to identify and assign value to all marital and nonmarital assets (and liabilities) that belong to the parties. Next, the judge must decide upon an “equitable division” of the marital assets and liabilities.
The default rule in Florida is that assets and liabilities should be divided equally. However, the judge may depart from this default and order an unequal division. But once again, the judge is required to make specific factual findings before an unequal division. Florida law actually lists 10 separate factors the judge needs to consider, including the length of the marriage, the relative economic circumstances of the parties, and what contributions one spouse made to the other’s education or career. The judge cannot simply order an unequal division of property without making the necessary findings first.
Similarly, a judge must make written findings before issuing a “default judgment” against one spouse over their alleged failure to properly respond to a divorce lawsuit. The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal recently addressed such a case. In Aponte v. Wood, a wife sued her husband for divorce. The husband answered the lawsuit, stating he did not oppose divorce but wanted to “clarify” the wife’s request for an equitable distribution.
Normally in a Florida divorce case, both spouses must file a Family Law Financial Affidavit, detailing their respective monthly income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. The wife filed an affidavit, but the husband did not. The wife then asked the court to order the husband comply with the rule. In response, the husband–whose native language is not English–filed what the Fourth District described as “documentation written entirely in Italian.”
Indeed, the husband apparently filed all of his responses to his wife and the court in Italian. Eventually, the judge determined the husband was not complying with the law and entered a default judgment for the wife. Following a three-minute hearing where the husband was not present, the judge entered a final divorce decree, which included orders regarding equitable distribution.
On appeal, the Fourth District said that was improper. First, the trial judge never made any written finding that the husband had “willfully” or “deliberately” ignored the court’s orders. Second, even if default judgment is appropriate, the trial judge still needs to make the necessary written findings–referencing the 10 factors stated in Florida law–before making an equitable distribution of property in a contested divorce case. The Fourth District therefore reversed the final judgment and returned the case to the trial court with instructions to make the required factual findings.
Speak with a Florida Divorce Lawyer Today
Divorce need not be a contentious process. Many divorces are uncontested and the parties are able to resolve their outstanding legal issues through negotiation or mediation. To learn more about your options from an experienced Tampa divorce attorney, contact Faulkner Law Group, PLLC, today to schedule a consultation.