Question: Does the trial judge hearing a divorce have to split everything the parties own/owe, including lottery winnings, 50/50 when dividing martial property?
Answer: NO! The judge has “broad discretion” in making this determination.
Maria married Jose on February 7, 2002, and they lived together until their physical separation in March 2006. The couple never again lived together after the physical separation, but they did not file for legal separation or dissolution. During the next six years, the couple spoke only two or three times, never comingled assets, had separate bank accounts, and generally lived as single individuals. In January 2011, Jose purchased a Hoosier Lottery scratch off ticket and won two million dollars. Jose filed for dissolution of the couple’s marriage in March 2011. On October 21, 2011, Maria served Requests for Admission pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 36 on Jose. Jose did not answer any of those requests within the thirty days required by Rule 36. The trial court issued its Decree of Dissolution of Marriage on June 19, 2012. It ordered Jose to pay Maria $10,000.00 each year for five years from his annual lottery distributions, for a total payment of $50,000.00. Jose was further ordered to pay $2,852.00 toward Maria’s attorney fees and $2,484.39 of her debts. Thereafter, Maria appealed the judge’s decision.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals first noted that the division of marital assets is within the trial court’s discretion. A party challenging the division of marital property must overcome a strong presumption that the trial court considered and complied with the applicable statute. We consider only the evidence most favorable to the trial court’s disposition of the marital property, and we may not reweigh the evidence or assess the credibility of the witnesses. The trial judge has an obligation to determine what split would be “just and reasonable” under the laws of the State of Indiana. Further, the trial court has broad discretion in making this determination. Discretion signifies choice, and a decision-maker exercising discretion has the ability to choose from a range of permissible conclusions. The decision-making activity is not ministerial and the various elements of the problem do not preordain a single permissible conclusion. The decision-maker can rely largely upon his own judgment in choosing among the alternatives. Although the act of choosing will be guided by various legal and other considerations, the decision-maker, and not the law, decides. In this sense, the core of “discretion” as a jurisprudential concept is the absence of a hard and fast rule that fixes the results produced under varying sets of facts. Here, the broad discretion of the trial court must include the ability to consider a range of just and reasonable divisions even though a request for admission establishes one division is fair and equitable. Therefore, the trial court committed no reversible error when it declined to divide the lottery winnings in the manner Jose admitted would be “a fair and equitable” distribution. Because the language of the admission did not preclude the trial court from awarding Maria only two point five percent of her husband’s lottery proceeds and Maria fails to overcome the strong presumption that the trial court considered and complied with the applicable statute, the trial court did not abuse its discretion. 7 N.E.3d 1009