Friday, December 30, 2011

You Can’t Go Home Again

Wilson v. Wilson, 2011 VT 133 (mem.).

Let us not waste time, good reader, and cut to the chase.  Today’s case illustrates a basic principle of family law: property distributions are forever.

Husband and wife divorced after 26 years of marriage.  Wife received custody of the kids and the house.  Wife also took on the mortgage and the home equity loans, but husband was required to pay half of all property tax payments, insurance premiums, and any repairs over $250.  This was to continue, according to the decree until the couple’s youngest child turned 18 when the property would be sold and 52% of the proceeds turned over to wife and 48% to husband. 

All went well until 2009 when husband was laid off and sought to change the terms of the distribution.  He argued that he could no longer afford the payments and petitioned the family court to end his payment obligation and order the house sold immediately.  To do this, husband sought to revisit the property distribution order through a relief from judgment order coupled with a motion that such relief was necessary to avoid injustice and hardship—or in legal terms, a V.R.C.P. Rule 60(b)(6) motion coupled with a V.R.F.P. Rule 4(a)(1) standard.   

No dice.  Both the trial court and the SCOV reject this legal equivalent of a bottle rocket taped to a matchbox car as the proper engine to revisit a property distribution.  Such orders can only be revised with a showing of fraud or coercion.  Neither is present here, and the matter is affirmed and dismissed. 

We usually, say that the losing party goes home empty handed, but in this case, that is not exactly true.  Husband cannot return “back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting,” but he must wait until the season allocated for distributions.  Until then, he is left outside, looking in.

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