ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE
Scott P. Sullivan
SUPREME COURT OF INDIANA
ROSE FOBAR (VONDERAHE), )
Appellant (Respondent Below), ) Indiana Supreme Court
) Cause No. 34S05-0204-CV-228
) Indiana Court of Appeals
ANTHONY M. VONDERAHE, ) Cause No. 34A05-0101-CV-2
Appellee (Petitioner Below). )
APPEAL FROM THE HOWARD SUPERIOR COURT
The Honorable Stephen M. Jessup, Special Judge
Cause No. 34D01-9904-DR-154
ON PETITION TO TRANSFER
July 1, 2002
In this marriage dissolution case, the Court of Appeals found the trial court
abused its discretion and instructed the trial court to deviate from a 50-50
property division to the extent necessary to reflect the value of one spouses
inherited and non-commingled interest in property. Fobar v. Vonderahe, 756 N.E.2d 512,
523 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001). We hold that a trial courts discretion
in dividing property in a dissolution is to be reviewed by considering the
division as a whole, not item by item. So viewed, the trial
courts 50-50 division was within its discretion.
Factual and Procedural Background
Rose Fobar Vonderahe and Anthony Vonderahe were married in 1983, and Anthony filed
a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in 1999. The couple jointly owned
their marital residence, and Rose and Anthony each individually owned rental real estate
acquired before the marriage. In addition, Rose owned a one-half interest in
real estate in Buffalo, Indiana that was inherited from her first husband after
a fatal automobile accident. Roses only daughter, Robin, inherited the other half
of the Buffalo property.
The trial court included Roses one-half interest in the Buffalo real estate as
marital property. After a three-day hearing, at Roses request, the court entered
findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court divided the marital
estate nearly equally, 50.7% to Anthony, 49.3% to Rose.
Rose appealed, claiming that the trial court was required to set aside her
interest in the Buffalo property to her. The Court of Appeals agreed
and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to enter a
property division decree that deviates from a 50/50 division of property in favor
of [Rose] to the extent necessary to reflect the value of her interest
in the Buffalo property.
See footnote 756 N.E.2d at 523. Anthony sought transfer,
arguing that the Court of Appeals did not apply the proper standard of
review. This Court granted transfer in a previous order dated April 5,
Standard of Review of a Property Division
Property owned by either spouse before the marriage is included in the marital
estate and subject to division and distribution. Ind. Code § 31-15-7-4 (1998).
Indiana law requires that marital property be divided in a just and
reasonable manner, id., and provides for the statutory presumption that an equal division
of the marital property between the parties is just and reasonable. I.C.
§ 31-15-7-5. This presumption may be rebutted, however, by evidence of each
spouses contribution to the acquisition of the property, the extent to which the
property was acquired before the marriage or by inheritance, the economic circumstances of
each spouse, the conduct of the parties relating to the disposition or dissipation
of assets, and each spouses earning ability. Id.
At Roses request, the trial court entered findings of fact and conclusions of
law. Findings of fact are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard.
Ind. Trial Rule 52(A). Conclusions of law, however, are reviewed de novo.
A clearly erroneous judgment can result from application of the wrong legal standard
to properly-found facts, and in that situation we do not defer to the
trial court. We are not bound by the trial courts characterization of
its results as findings of fact or conclusions of law. Rather, we
look past these labels to the substance of the judgment and will review
a legal conclusion as such even if the judgment wrongly classifies it as
a finding of fact.
Beam v. Wausau Ins. Co., 765 N.E.2d 524, 528 (Ind. 2002). This
case turns on whether the trial courts division of the marital property was
just and reasonable. Although this is in some sense an issue of
law, it is highly fact sensitive and is subject to an abuse of
discretion standard. Taylor v. Taylor, 436 N.E.2d 56, 58 (Ind. 1982); Elkins
v. Elkins, 763 N.E.2d 482, 484-85 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002); Pitman v. Pitman,
721 N.E.2d 260, 264 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans. denied; Berger v. Berger,
648 N.E.2d 378, 381 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995); Truman v. Truman, 642 N.E.2d
230, 234 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994). A reviewing court will not weigh
evidence, but will consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the
judgment. Quillen v. Quillen, 671 N.E.2d 98, 102 (Ind. 1996); Pitman, 721
N.E.2d at 264.
The Court of Appeals found that Rose made a clear showing that she
obtained the Buffalo property both by inheritance and before the marriage, and that
Anthony never used the property, did not contribute to its improvements, and participated
in no decisions concerning the property. Fobar, 756 N.E.2d at 522-23.
Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court
abused its discretion in refusing to consider the Buffalo property as an additional
value to be allocated to Rose. Id. at 521-23. In reaching
this conclusion, the Court of Appeals relied principally on Castaneda v. Castaneda, 615
N.E.2d 467 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993). Castaneda held that all property of
the parties must be included in the marital estate regardless of its source,
but the trial court may deviate from the 50-50 statutory presumption if property
was brought separately into the marriage, was never commingled with other marital assets,
and was never treated as marital assets. 615 N.E.2d at 470 (emphasis
added). Anthony correctly responds that Castaneda does not stand for the proposition
that a trial court is required to reach an unequal division of property
because one spouse brought some items separately to the marriage. Rather Castaneda
permits the trial court, in its discretion, to choose to distribute the marital
property unequally in favor of one spouse based on statutorily identified considerations, one
of which is inherited property. Whether to do so is a matter
of trial court discretion in light of all other relevant factors.
The trial courts disposition is to be considered as a whole, not item
by item. Simpson v. Simpson, 650 N.E.2d 333, 335 (Ind. Ct. App.
1995); Livingston v. Livingston, 583 N.E.2d 1225, 1227 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), trans.
denied; Hoyle v. Hoyle, 473 N.E.2d 653, 657 (Ind. Ct. App. 1985).
In crafting a just and reasonable property distribution, a trial court is required
to balance a number of different considerations in arriving at an ultimate disposition.
The court may allocate some items of property or debt to one
spouse because of its disposition of other items. Similarly, the factors identified
by the statute as permitting an unequal division in favor of one party
or the other may cut in different directions. As a result, if
the appellate court views any one of these in isolation and apart from
the total mix, it may upset the balance ultimately struck by the trial
Here, there is ample basis justifying the trial courts inclusion of Roses interest
in the Buffalo property and the equal division of the entire marital pot.
Anthony has an annual income of $32,800, and Rose earns approximately $40,500.
Rose was awarded Anthonys rental property that he acquired prior to the
marriage. The trial court found that Roses earning ability was substantially more
than Anthonys and would be increased by her greater rental income after the
Decree takes effect. Thus the trial court was well within its discretion
in offsetting Roses higher earning capacity and resources by including the Buffalo property
in the overall 50-50 split, rather than setting it off to Rose as
a separate item.
Neither party has cited any case where an equal division was reversed on
the account of inherited property. Indeed, Indiana law presumes that an equal
division of the marital property between the parties is just and reasonable.
I.C. § 31-15-7-5. In many circumstances, it may be appropriate to award
a greater share of the marital property to one spouse by reason of
inheritance. But Indiana statute requires all property to be considered in the
marital estate. I.C. § 31-15-7-4. Even if some items meet the
statutory criteria that may support an unequal division of the overall pot, the
law does not require an unequal division if overall considerations render the total
resolution just and equitable. The trial court considered seventy-two exhibits and the
testimony of four witnesses, which were presented over the course of three days.
Although several of the couples assets were brought to the marriage, there
was no requirement that any be set off for one spouse, and no
requirement that the overall pot be unequally divided. Rather, we conclude that
the trial court was within its discretion in dividing the property 50-50, and
was not required to alter its virtually equal division of the marital property
to reflect Roses interest in the inherited Buffalo property.
Pursuant to Indiana Appellate Rule 58(A)(2), we summarily affirm all other issues.
We affirm the trial court in all respects except the attorney fee issue.
This case is remanded for resolution of that issue for the reasons
given by the Court of Appeals.
SHEPARD, C.J., and DICKSON, SULLIVAN, and RUCKER, JJ., concur.
On appeal, Rose raised several other issues. She contended: (1)
the divorce decree was void due to a jurisdictional defect caused by the
trial courts failure to strictly comply with Howard Local Rule 16(B), which requires
the filing of financial disclosure forms by the parties to a dissolution proceeding;
(2) the findings of fact and conclusions of law do not support the
trial courts award of attorneys fees to Anthony; and (3) the trial court
erred in including horses and automobiles Rose claimed were owned by her daughter.
The Court of Appeals held that: (1) any error relating to
the trial courts failure to abide by Howard Local Rule 16(B) was waived
by Roses failure to object timely; (2) the trial courts sole reference to
Roses conduct during the course of litigation was not sufficiently complete to support
the attorneys fees award; (3) the trial court did not abuse its discretion
in weighing competing interests and concluding that Anthony should have possession of the
marital residence; (4) in light of the conflicting evidence regarding the horses true
owner(s), the trial court did not clearly err by including them in the
marital estate; (5) a Pontiac Sunfire was properly included in the marital estate;
(6) it was harmless error for the trial court to include a Volkswagen
Jetta in the marital estate; (7) the trial courts inclusion of Roses one-half
interest in the Buffalo property in the marital estate was proper; and (8)
except for failing to set aside the Buffalo property to Rose, the trial
court did not abuse its discretion in dividing the property almost nearly equally
between the parties despite Roses claim that she brought more assets to the
marriage than Anthony and earned more income during the course of the marriage,
and despite Roses claim that her daughters social security benefits contributed to the
operation and maintenance of the household. Fobar, 756 N.E.2d at 512.
Except as issue (8) relates to the Buffalo property, we summarily affirm these
issues. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A)(2).
The trial court stated:
There was considerable dispute as to a lot located and referred to as
the Buffalo Real Estate. The property had originally come from the lineage
of the Respondents first husband (husbands mother) which is shown by Respondents Exhibit
W, deeded to Robert L. Fobar, the Respondents first husband. This was
subject to a life estate in his mother, who is now deceased.
That in accordance therewith, the property would be owned ½ half by the
Respondent and ½ by Robin, the daughter of Robert Fobar by right of
inheritance from Respondents first husband. That as a result thereof, the Court
is justified in giving consideration to the source of said property, and dividing
the marital assets of the parties. The Court finds that a fair
evaluation for said property is in the sum of $45,000 and that Robin
Fobar is the owner of ½ of said Real Estate, the value therefore
for inclusion of marital assets is $22,500.