The role of fault – “He hit me and gave me a bloody nose.”

It just happens that one of the most common questions asked is the role of fault in a Michigan divorce and on July 18, 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issue in the case of Koch v. Koch.  The Koch marriage began in 1987 and ended October 17, 2014.  The parties had one child (who was an adult at the time of the divorce).

At trial, the wife testified that she has worked for 22 years in the kitchen of a school, earning roughly $15,000.00 annually.  The wife further testified that her husband would berate her calling her “dumb, stupid, and an idiot” and throughout the marriage threatened to “beat the crap out of her”, striking her in the face and ultimately was convicted of domestic violence.  If that wasn’t enough, the husband also threatened to shoot his father in law, and was a persistent drinker admitting giving his wife a bloody nose on another occasion.

At trial, the judge determined that the husband was at fault for the breakdown of the parties’ marriage awarding the wife spousal support and 55% of her husband’s monthly pension benefits based on fault and the wife’s needs.  The husband appealed and argued property division should have been 50/50.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision and recited the relevant case law pertaining to the role of fault in a Michigan divorce.  I have summarized the case law relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals in upholding the trial court’s basis for an unequal division of property because of the role of fault.

The Role of Fault – case law.

  • Marital property must be fairly (not equally) divided.

Gates v Gates, 256 Mich App 420, 423 (2003). “Although marital property need not be divided equally, it must be divided equitably in light of a court’s evaluation of the parties’ contributions, faults, and needs.”

  • Fault or past misconduct is a relevant factor in dividing property.

Richards v Richards, 310 Mich App 683 (2015) at 694:“To reach an equitable division of marital property a trial court should consider the duration of the marriage, the contribution of each party to the marital estate, each party’s station in life, each party’s earning ability, each party’s age, health and needs, fault or past misconduct, and any other equitable circumstance.”

  • No one factor should be given undue weight.

Woodington v Shokoohi, 288 Mich App (2010) at 363.  “The determination of relevant factors will vary with the circumstances of each case, and no one factor should be given undue weight . . . The trial court should make specific factual findings regarding the factors that are relevant to the particular case.”

Korth v Korth, 256 Mich App 286, 289; 662 NW2d 111 (2003). The trial court must not place excessive weight on the factor of fault.

  • Property division should be fair not punitive.

McDougal v McDougal, 451 Mich 80, 89-90; 545 NW2d 357 (1996). “[F]ault is an element in the search for an equitable division—it is not a punitive basis for an inequitable division . . . In determining fault as one of the factors to be considered when fashioning property settlements, courts are to examine the conduct of the parties during the marriage.”

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The role of fault - "He hit me and gave me a bloody nose."
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The role of fault - "He hit me and gave me a bloody nose."
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The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision and recited the relevant case law pertaining to the role of fault in a Michigan divorce.
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Findling Law, PLC
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