This is the first in a series of blog posts detailing Florida appellate court decisions reversing trial courts in family law cases.
Have you ever heard of a spouse in a dissolution proceeding stipulating to being able to pay whatever amount the trial court orders? It may not be common, but that’s what happened in a case that recently went up to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, Erin W. Phillips v. Donald E. Phillips, et al.(opinion filed Feb. 20, 2019).
A hearing was scheduled on the issue of temporary support. The Husband, a man of substantial means, didn’t want his trust income revealed, leading to his stipulation that he could pay whatever the trial court deemed fit to grant the Wife. Based on the stipulation, the court quashed the Wife’s subpoenas to the trust companies. Here why the appellate court concluded the trial court got it wrong:
Before a hearing on temporary support and attorneys’ fees, the Wife sought updated financial records from trust companies that had previously disbursed income to the Husband. The Wife wanted to establish the parties’ financial resources and the Husband’s ability to pay. In response, the Husband stipulated that he could afford to pay “whatever the trial court ordered.” The trial court sustained the trust companies’ objections and granted their motion to quash the subpoenas.
Section 61.16(1), Florida Statutes (2017), permits the trial court to order one party to pay a reasonable amount for attorneys’ fees, suit money, and costs to maintain or defend a dissolution action “after considering the financial resources of both parties, the marital lifestyle, the need for temporary support, and the other party’s ability to pay.” The trial court must consider all sources of income available to each spouse, including trust income. The court can’t limit its review to the parties’ financial affidavits if one party seeks to introduce additional evidence. This is particularly true when there is some indication that the financial affidavits do not present the complete financial picture.
Appellate Court Opinion
The Second District Court of Appeal held that in accepting the Husband’s stipulation and quashing the subpoenas, the trial court prevented the Wife from obtaining the evidence she needed to meet her burden of proof at the temporary support hearing. The trial court departed from the essential requirements of the law by sustaining the Trusts’ objections and quashing the Wife’s subpoenas for documents relevant and necessary to her claim for awards of temporary support and attorneys’ fees. The trial court had a duty to determine the reasonable amount of temporary support given the parties’ financial resources.
Appellate Take Away
Just because one party stipulates to a key point, such as the ability to pay, that doesn’t mean the other party isn’t entitled to conduct discovery regarding the other party’s income. A party is entitled to get a complete picture of the other party’s financial resources and ability to pay. The trial court needs to conduct a thorough evaluation and make the required findings of fact.
The written opinion can be found here:
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