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Fleet v. Fleet

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

April 20, 2017

Edmund C. Fleet, Appellant,
Ericka E. Fleet, Appellee.

          Submitted February 7, 2017

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DRB-3615-13) Hon. Robert R. Rigsby, Trial Judge

          Jennifer Anukem for appellant.

          Daniel S. Shaivitz for appellee.

          Before Thompson, Beckwith, and McLeese, Associate Judges.

          Beckwith, Associate Judge

         Appellant Edmund Fleet appeals from a judgment of absolute divorce entered by the trial court following a five-day bench trial. Mr. Fleet challenges the court's distribution of a portion of the marital home and Mr. Fleet's retirement account to his ex-wife, appellee Ericka Fleet. Mr. Fleet contends that in dividing the marital home, the court applied an improper presumption of equal-rather than equitable-distribution, resulting in an erroneous allocation of fifty percent of the equity in the home (after deducting Mr. Fleet's $30, 000 down payment and costs relating to the sale of the home) to Ms. Fleet. Mr. Fleet also claims that the court failed to consider certain facts bearing on the equitable distribution of the home and failed to make a finding as to the value of the home. Regarding his retirement account, Mr. Fleet claims that the trial court erred in awarding a portion of the account to Ms. Fleet, even though the account decreased in value over the course of the marriage. We agree with Mr. Fleet that the trial court's factual findings are inadequate to support its distribution of the marital home and the retirement account, and we reverse and remand for further consideration.

         I. Background

         Ericka and Edmund Fleet were married in October 2010. They had one child, born in January 2013. In August 2013, the parties began "liv[ing] separate and apart, without . . . cohabitation, "[1] and Ms. Fleet subsequently filed a complaint for legal separation and custody. Mr. Fleet filed a counterclaim for absolute divorce and custody. After two years of proceedings, including an appeal to this court[2] and a five-day bench trial, the trial court entered a judgment of absolute divorce. The court's written judgment resolved a number of disputes between the parties, including custody of their child, child support, alimony, and distribution of property. Only the court's findings and conclusions relating to the marital home and to Mr. Fleet's retirement account are at issue in this appeal.

         A. The Marital Home

         During most of the marriage, including a number of months after the parties were legally separated, the parties lived together-with their child and Ms. Fleet's child from an earlier marriage-in a house in Southeast Washington, D.C. Mr. Fleet had purchased the home in January 2010, nine months before the marriage, and the title was solely in Mr. Fleet's name.[3] Mr. Fleet financed the purchase with a mortgage, and he made a $30, 000 down payment. Before and during the marriage, Mr. Fleet was solely responsible for the mortgage and all other expenses related to the home. Mr. Fleet testified at trial that he covered some of the expenses associated with the home using funds-eventually totaling $50, 000-that he borrowed from his mother. Ms. Fleet lost her job five months into the marriage and was still unemployed at the time of the divorce trial in 2015. According to the trial court's summary of the testimony, she contributed by "maintaining the household, caring for the minor child and paying household expenses with funds earned by [Mr. Fleet] and by [Ms. Fleet] while she [was still employed] . . . and while she collected unemployment thereafter." "[B]oth parties contributed to the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and care of the minor child during the marriage."

         One week before the parties separated in August 2013, Mr. Fleet deeded the marital home to himself and Ms. Fleet, as tenants by the entirety. When asked at trial why he added Ms. Fleet's name to the title, Mr. Fleet explained that Ms. Fleet "kept pressuring [him] to do so and [that] [he] finally acquiesced . . . [i]n order to keep peace in the house." In hindsight, Mr. Fleet believed that Ms. Fleet, a former paralegal, convinced him to add her name as part of a "methodical and thought out" "exit strategy from the marriage." In her testimony, Ms. Fleet explained the decision process somewhat differently:

We had just had the baby and I wanted to establish some stability for the baby of course and there was an incident where we had had guests over and I was in charge of paying the bills and I paid the water bill and I don't think I paid enough of the water bill. So, they shut the water off and it was embarrassing. . . . I couldn't transact business because my name wasn't on any of the utilities and so, with it being the water company[, ] the owner of the property is responsible for the water bill. . . . You know this is my house too. I think we are going to have to change that. I am going to have to get my name on the deed . . . .

         Ultimately, it was Ms. Fleet who reached out to the "title company . . . and paid them a flat fee to . . . have the documents prepared."

         In the judgment of divorce, the trial court found that Mr. Fleet's act of "add[ing] [Ms. Fleet's] name to the title of the marital home[] indicat[ed] an intention that [Mr. Fleet] wanted [Ms. Fleet] to share in the ownership of the marital home." "Consequently, " the court awarded Ms. Fleet "50% of the value of the mar[it]al home minus the $30, 000 that [Mr. Fleet] paid for the down payment" and costs relating to the sale of the home. The court ordered the home to be sold, reasoning that "[a] sale . . . will allow Mr. Fleet to recover his original investment of $30, 000, empower ...

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