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In re Munson

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

August 19, 2016

IN THE MATTER OF DEBORAH MUNSON AND CORALEE BEAL

          Argued: May 5, 2016

         10th Circuit Court - Derry Family Division No. 2015-0253

          Crusco Law Office, PLLC, of Bedford (Kysa M. Crusco on the brief and orally), for the petitioner.

          Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Manchester and Saco, Maine (Paul R. Kfoury, Sr., Andrea Q. Labonte, and Courtney Michalec Hart on the brief, and Mr. Kfoury orally), for the respondent.

          American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, of Concord (Gilles R. Bissonnette on the brief), and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, of Boston, Massachusetts (Mary L. Bonauto on the brief), for American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, as amici curiae.

          HICKS, J.

         The respondent, Coralee Beal, appeals a divorce decree of the Circuit Court (Sadler, J.) awarding the petitioner, Deborah Munson, what Beal represents to be eighty-eight percent of the value of the marital estate. The court awarded Beal the remaining twelve percent and alimony.[*] Munson filed a cross-appeal, but later withdrew it. Beal argues that the court erred by failing to consider the parties' approximately fifteen-year period of premarital cohabitation when it determined the provisions of the decree. We hold that the trial court may consider premarital cohabitation when formulating an equitable distribution of marital property. See RSA 458:16-a, II (2004). Accordingly, we vacate both the property distribution and alimony award and remand for further proceedings.

         The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Munson and Beal met in 1992. The following year, they began living together in Munson's home in Chester. Approximately fifteen years later, on October 8, 2008, the parties entered into a civil union, and, on January 1, 2011, their civil union converted to a marriage by operation of law. See RSA 457:46, II (Supp. 2015). On March 28, 2012, Munson filed a petition for divorce.

         At trial, Munson took the position that the parties' marriage was a short-term marriage. Beal challenged that position in her trial memorandum:

Prior to the legalization of gay marriage, [Beal] and [Munson] did what the law allowed them to do as any other married couple to provide for the other, including, but not limited to executing estate plans that left respective estates to the other, [Munson] providing life and health insurance for her partner's benefit, having joint accounts, commingling bank and credit card accounts, sharing duties within the home and finally joining together in a civil union and legal marriage.

         Beal argued that "[t]he Court must consider the parties['] lengthy twenty-one year relationship . . . when ordering [a] . . . distribution of the marital property in this matter." (Underlining and bolding omitted.)

         The trial court granted the parties a divorce based upon irreconcilable differences. In its decree, the court made extensive findings of fact concerning the parties' premarital relationship; however, it determined that "the effect of the civil union between [the parties] on October 8, 2008 started their marriage and the issues in their divorce will be determined using that as the start date." (Bolding omitted.) It then found that the parties' marriage was "short-term" and concluded that "this is a special circumstance wherein distribution of the assets is not equal." Based upon these findings, the court ordered the distribution of approximately twelve percent of the marital estate to Beal and that Munson pay $500 per month in alimony to Beal for a term of five years.

         On appeal, Beal challenges the trial court's division of the marital property as well as the amount of the alimony award. "We afford trial courts broad discretion in determining matters of property distribution, alimony and child support in fashioning a final divorce decree." In the Matter of Crowe & Crowe, 148 N.H. 218, 221 (2002). "We will not overturn a trial court's decision on these matters absent an unsustainable exercise of discretion or an error of law." In the Matter of Costa & Costa, 156 N.H. 323, 326 (2007) (citation omitted).

         We first address the trial court's division of the marital property. Under RSA 458:16-a, the marital estate includes "all tangible and intangible property and assets, real or personal, belonging to either or both parties, whether title to the property is held in the name of either or both parties." RSA 458:16-a (2004) (emphasis added). "The statute does not classify property based upon when or by whom it was acquired, but rather assumes that all property is susceptible to division." In the Matter of Crowe & Crowe, 148 N.H. at 221.

         RSA 458:16-a, II grants the trial court the authority to equitably divide the marital estate: "When a dissolution of a marriage is decreed, the [trial] court may order an equitable division of property between the parties." RSA 458:16-a, II. The statute requires the court to "presume that an equal division is an equitable distribution of property." Id. We have interpreted the statute to require that, "[a]bsent special circumstances, the court must make the ...


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