Argued: May 5, 2016
Circuit Court - Derry Family Division No. 2015-0253
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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 ...