Donovan v. Donovan (First DCA, August 9, 2016)

In a modification proceeding, the trial court reduced the former wife’s alimony to zero.  The former wife argued on appeal that even if the reduction was warranted, the trial court should have awarded her nominal alimony to preserve her right for a future increase.

The First District affirmed, and wrote to explain that the trial court’s statement that it “retains jurisdiction to enter whatever other orders which may be required” is adequate to preserve the former wife’s right to an alimony increase in the future if circumstances change.

It is likely, though not clear, that this logic should apply only in modification proceedings where permanent alimony was awarded in the original divorce.  This opinion would deviate from prior precedent if it allowed a spouse to revisit the issue of alimony at a later date even in situations where alimony had been denied originally simply based on the trial court reserved jurisdiction to enter additional orders in the future.

Chandler v. Kibbey (First DCA, August 9, 2016)

The District Court reversed an award of attorney’s fees because the order failed to include explicit findings as to the reasonableness of the award.

Palmer v. Palmer (First DCA, August 9, 2016)

In a divorce proceeding, the trial court refused to award the wife any attorney’s fees that she incurred after rejecting a settlement offer despite finding that she would otherwise be entitled to fees.  At hearing, the husband had argued that the wife over-litigated the case by continuing to pursue alimony even after he offered her a lump-sum payment of $25,000 earlier in the case.  The trial court ultimately awarded only $10,000 in lump-sum alimony.

The trial court concluded that the wife had unreasonably rejected the offer based on the fact that she received less at trial.

The First District reversed the partial denial of attorney’s fees, explaining that no authority exists for denying fees solely as a result of the needy parties’ the failure to accept an offer of settlement.  In doing so, the Court expressed concerns about trial courts considering settlement offers at all in the attorney’s fees context.

The Court declared conflict with the Fourth District, which has held that fees can be denied for refusing to accept a settlement offer that was “significantly better than anything [the party] could have received at trial.”

Loza v. Marin (2d DCA, August 12, 2016)

After the parties’ son graduated high school and turned 18, the former husband filed a petition to terminate his child support.  The former wife thereafter filed a counter-petition alleging that the son had a disability and former husband’s child support obligation should be extended into adulthood.  The former husband moved to dismiss the counter-petition on the grounds that the trial court no longer had subject matter jurisdiction to modify child support because the obligation had already lapsed.  The trial court denied the former husband’s motion, denied his termination petition and granted the former wife’s counter-petition.

The Second DCA reversed, finding that the trial court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to grant the former wife’s request for modification because her counter-petition was filed after the child reached the age of majority.  Effectively, the Court ruled that once a child support obligation terminates, a trial court loses jurisdiction to modify same even if the child is or becomes disabled and incapable of self-support.

N.A.G. v. J.L.G. (2d DCA, August 12, 2016)

The father’s new wife sought to adopt the husband’s children and sought a determination that the mother had abandoned the children.  The trial court found abandonment and terminated the mother’s rights.  The Second DCA reversed.

In doing so, the Court observed that a finding of abandonment requires evidence that the mother’s actions “evinced a settled purpose to forgo and relinquish all parental responsibilities,” adding that termination may not be based on “involuntary abandonment.”  To this point, the Court observed that the father and his new wife had sought and received injunctions and other legal obstacles that made it difficult for the mother to contact and communicate with the children.  The Court noted that even the trial court had concluded that the father and his new wife had alienated the mother from the children.  Despite this, the mother had made at least some efforts to contact the children during these periods.

Because the facts did not show that the mother intended to forgo all parental responsibilities, it was error for the trial court to conclude that the mother had abandoned the children.  Thus, the mother’s parental rights should not have been terminated.

Gross v. Zimmerman (Fourth DCA, August 10, 2016)

A paternity case involving a father making more than $160,000 per month and a mother making about $50,000 per year.  Although the appellate court addressed multiple issues in its opinion, the two discussed below are the most important.

First, the trial judge, in temporary relief, had previously granted the father’s request for a downward modification from the child support guidelines based on a finding that the child’s needs were only about $4,500 per month.  The judge thereafter chose not to grant the downward modification in its final order, ordering the father to pay guidelines support of about $9,000 per month.  The Fourth District Court affirmed, observing that the law creates a presumption that the statutory amount is appropriate.  It added that this presumption is one affecting the burden of proof, such that the party opposing the presumption must put on evidence proving that a deviation is appropriate.  In this case, the father failed to put on any evidence of the child’s need.  Although the father argued that no circumstances had changed since the temporary relief hearing, he failed to specifically ask the trial court to take judicial notice of the evidence and conclusions relating to the child’s needs from that hearing.  As such, the record was bare of evidence showing that the amount of support prescribed by the guidelines was inappropriate.  (In a dissenting opinion as to this issue, Justice Warner held that the trial court should have considered the evidence and conclusions from temporary relief automatically, as this was all part of the court record.)

Second, the trial judge ordered the father to pay 98% of cost of the child’s extracurricular activists despite there being no evidence that the child was involved in any such activities. The District Court reversed because the record did not indicate that the child was enrolled in any such activities.  Thus, the “open-ended award” subjected the father to “the expense of any extracurricular activity in which the mother may involve the child without any input by the father or regard as to its cost.”

Palmer v. Palmer (5th DCA, August 12, 2016)

In a divorce, the trial court ordered the husband to obtain life insurance as security for his alimony obligation.  The District Court reversed because the trial court had failed to make findings as to the cost of insurance and any “special circumstances” justifying the need for the policy.  The Court observed that other than raising the issue in her initial pleadings, the wife had failed to introduce any evidence regarding available policies or special circumstances.  The Court remanded to issue to the trial court to make additional findings or to remove the insurance requirement altogether.

The trial court also awarded a website to the wife and the husband appealed.  The Court noted that neither party had presented testimony about the website or its value in the underlying proceedings.  The Court inferred that this meant that the website was an “insignificant issue” and declined to find error in the award.