The Devil is in the Details: Family Court Appeals are Tricky

I was talking over a minor but interesting case with a few of my colleagues this week, and someone pointed out the lesson to be found. I liked the example enough that I decided to turn it into a blog post.

The case is Bergh v. Bergh [PDF], and in short, the story is this:

  • Two fairly well-off people were getting divorced.
  • They agreed on just about everything. The exceptions: spousal support and their daughter’s college debt. The two had made a promise to their daughter years ago that they would pay for her college. She still had upwards of $30,000 in unpaid college debts, and Mrs. Bergh wanted to make sure that some of the proceeds the two would make from selling their marital home went to pay off that debt.
  • The Michigan family court ruled for temporary and fairly low spousal support, despite the fact that the wife’s comfortable six-figure income “far exceeded [the husband’s] by over $100,000” per year.
  • The court further ordered that, as per the wife’s request and the couple’s acknowledged promise, some of the proceeds of the house sale would go to pay off the daughter’s college debt.

All of this seemed reasonable to the wife and the court, but the husband promptly filed an appeal. He claimed that, because of long-term injuries, he should receive a larger amount of spousal support, and receive it for longer. Further, he claimed that the court had no authority to order the couple to pay the daughter’s college debt, and thus he shouldn’t have to commit any money to that purpose.

The spousal support part of the case is fairly uninteresting. But the whole ‘sell the house, pay the debt’ part — that’s interesting.

The fact of the law is that the husband is correct: the Michigan family court’s jurisdiction is “strictly statutory, and limited to determining the spouse’s rights and obligations, to the exclusion of third parties.” In other words, the court had no legal grounds for forcing either partner to pay for the daughter’s college debt.

But the house was sold, and the college debt was paid off, despite the husband’s appeal.

Why? Because the husband never asked for the court to grant a stay of the divorce judgment until the appeal was resolved, which meant that the judgment was executed promptly — including the sale of the home and the mandated payoff of the daughter’s debts. By the time the husband’s appeal was put in front of the Michigan appeals court, the matter had already been decided.

The husband argued that the court had the authority to undo the ‘damage’ by forcing the wife to pay him back his half of the daughter’s college debt. But, like the family court, the appellate court also has limits on its jurisdiction, and one of those limits is that “an appellate court will not decide moot issues.” (A moot issue is any issue wherein an event has already occurred that renders the appellate court unable to grant relief.)

In this case, while the husband’s argument that his ex should be forced to pay him back half the money is suitable from his financial perspective, the fact is that it doesn’t have the same effect as undoing the family court’s flawed decision. In order to undo the bad decision, the court would have to order the student loan company to give the money back to the couple.

Here’s the real kicker.

The appellate court admitted that they could make that order — but they wouldn’t, because in order to even consider it as an option, the husband would first have to point out that doing so was an option. In other words, because the husband’s appeal focused on an issue that didn’t strictly undo the damage, and didn’t focus on the issue that would undo the damage, the appeals court ruled that the husband had “[failed] to show that the matter had not been rendered moot.”

That’s right: the court saw that the matter wasn’t necessarily moot, but they’re limited to ruling on the actual appeal in front of them, and the way the husband structured his appeal allowed the matter of the house sale to become (remain?) moot. Thus, they decided to rule ‘ignoring this issue as it’s moot at this point,’ and the $15,000 that could have ended up in the huband’s pocket instead went to paying off his daughter’s college debt.

The lesson here? This ‘injustice’ (from the husband’s perspective, at least) could have been avoided at least three ways. Instead, because he (and/or his lawyer) missed out on some rather fundamental items — really, appealing a divorce judgment without asking for a stay of execution on that judgment is so basic that it’s appalling it didn’t happen — he missed out.

Don’t just get a lawyer: get a good lawyer. We make the difference in cases like this. By the way, our phone number is 248-723-5190. We’d love to hear from you!

Too much information?

We focus exclusively on family law matters so we are always available to answer your questions and help.

Leave a Reply