Is it 1883 at the Yellowstone Ranch? Recently, a Montana legislator proposed a new bill that would turn the clock back on no-fault divorce by allowing family courts to consider adultery when deciding on a property division. The bill would also allow the court to award attorneys’ fees and costs of a divorce in cases of adultery.
Dividing the ‘Oro y Plata’
The bill says in considering how to divide up assets and property during a couple’s divorce, a court “shall” consider “physical abuse or adultery that substantially contributed to the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage” along with a host of other things, like how long they were married, their income levels, health and more.
Under House Bill 237, which saw its first hearing Friday, if a court finds the abuse or cheating “substantially” contributed to the deterioration of the marriage, it “may” order the abuser or cheater to pay “a reasonable amount” of the other spouse’s attorney’s fees.
The bill further adds that “physical abuse or adultery alone” could allow the court to split the couple’s assets disproportionately. The measure would also apply to orders in which one spouse has to cover ongoing living costs for the other.
Current law says courts have to make that decision “without regard to marital misconduct.” Under the new bill proposed:
In a case in which the court finds physical abuse or adultery substantially contributed to the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, the court may order the offending party to pay a reasonable amount for the cost to the other party of maintaining and defending any proceeding under this chapter and for professional fees, including sums for legal and professional services rendered and costs incurred prior to the commencement of the proceedings or after entry of judgment. The court may order that the amount be paid directly to the professional, who may enforce the order in the professional’s name.
One of the proponents who testified was a woman who said she ran a domestic violence program on the Hi-Line. She said perhaps adultery and physical abuse needed to be defined, though she said she believed physical abuse included adultery.
The sponsor said he was open to a possible amendment defining each.
Florida Adultery and Property Division
I’ve written about property and adultery before. Adultery can be the cause of a divorce, but can it impact the outcome? Since Florida became a no-fault state, the fact that Beth may have cheated on Rip would not be a drama played out in court.
Interestingly, while anyone can file for divorce in Florida without proving grounds, there is still a Florida statutory basis for adultery to be an issue in your divorce proceedings. But not in the way most people think.
Florida is an equitable distribution state, and it is presumed that property should be evenly divided. This presumption may be overcome by proof that one spouse intentionally wasted marital assets. This waste is sometimes known as dissipation. Paying for expensive jewelry, foreign trips, rent, car payments, and dinners for girlfriends and boyfriends is considered wasting marital assets. The court has the power to reduce an adulterer’s equitable distribution to credit the marital estate for waste.
Adultery alone would not really be grounds for an unequal distribution if there was no dissipation. The rationale is that dealing with allegations of marital misconduct, such as adultery, would be a step back to 1923: before our no-fault system was enacted.
Big Problems in Big Sky Country
Many are opposing the bill: “This bill is giving abusive partners a legal tool to use allegations of adultery in a public forum against their spouse to harass, humiliate and intimidate them into staying in a violent relationship,” said a Missoula family law attorney who testified in opposition to House Bill 237.
An attorney who said 90% of their caseload involves survivors of domestic violence, told the House Judiciary Committee the bill, if passed, “would be devastating for survivors.”
Abusers often accuse their spouses of adultery to “exercise power and control” over them and the bill would help them utilize the justice system to continue the cycle.
The attorney also said the measure would encourage parties to litigate who is at fault for the breakdown of the marriage, which would exacerbate already costly divorce proceedings. It would also further overburden courts where half of the cases involved family law\.
A domestic violence prosecutor for the City of Billings, said he was concerned judges might believe:
“The question we always get is why doesn’t she just leave? Well, this bill will help answer that question if it passes.”
The prosecutor also explained how domestic abusers – who are usually men, he said – see their wives as property and expendable resources and themselves “almost always (as) the victim.” He said the bill treats violence and adultery as the “exact same thing. Leveling accusations of domestic violence requires some sort of proof, and remember, one of these things is illegal; the other is not.”
The Daily Montanan article is here.