Monday, April 13, 2020

In re Marriage of Mohler (Cal. Ct. App. - April 13, 2020)

There are extraordinarily few appellate opinions that are as clear, coherent, and full of common sense as this one today from Justice Raphael.

It's really just an outstanding opinion.  It's a somewhat complicated issue involving how you split (1) separate property owned by one spouse before the marriage, (2) in which the community (during the marriage) pays part of the mortgage, and (3) the owning spouse lives in the property after the date of the separation.

There's a fairly clear answer already to (1) and (2).  (Though Justice Raphael does a fantastic job of explaining that answer to non-family law practitioners such as myself.)  It's (3) that makes things a bit complicated, and that trips up the trial court here.  The trial court adjusted the community percentage of ownership (obtained pursuant to (1) and (2)) of the separate property given that the owning spouse lived in the thing after the separation.  Justice Raphael persuasively explains that that's wrong; that the community might well have what's called a Watts charge for a percentage of lost imputed rent on the thing (pursuant to its preexisting percentage of ownership under Moore/Marsden), but that the fact that the spouse continued to live in the place (and pay the mortgage with his separate property) doesn't change the relevant ownership percentages.  After reading the opinion, that seems obviously and indisputably right.  The fact that the trial court thought otherwise is merely testament to what a great job Justice Raphael does of explaining why the case should come out the way it does.

It's opinions like this that make me hopeful -- in a very broad sense (at least vis-a-vis justice in the trial court and on appeal).  It's a clear rule.  It's not so difficult to apply.  And as an equitable matter, it makes eminent sense.  Yes, the trial court thought differently, and took a different approach, but that's why we put extremely smart people on the Court of Appeal.  Because sometimes, as here, they come up with a much superior approach; one that enhances justice and makes eminent sense.