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Schmidt v. Schmidt

Supreme Court of Delaware

August 23, 2018

MASON SCHMIDT, Petitioner Below, Appellant,
SARAH SCHMIDT, Respondent Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: August 22, 2018

          Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware No. CK16-01671

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VAUGHN and TRAYNOR, Justices.


          Gary F. Traynor Justice.

         This 23rd day of August, 2018, having considered the briefs and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Appellant Mason Schmidt[1] appeals from a Family Court property-division and permanent-alimony order issued after his 2016 divorce from Appellee Sarah Schmidt. The order was entered after an ancillary hearing at which Mason and Sarah, both represented by counsel, were the only witnesses.

         (2) Before the hearing, the parties reached agreement on a host of outstanding issues. Under the agreement, which was eventually memorialized in a written stipulation and entered as an order by the Family Court, the parties stipulated that, among other things, Mason would have the right to purchase Sarah's equity in the former marital residence, that they would divide all marital retirement accounts equally, and that their personal property, other than Sarah's engagement and wedding rings, would be divided by the two-list method.[2] Mason and Sarah also agreed that Mason's application for the financing required to buy Sarah's equity in the marital residence would "assume payment to [Sarah] of Sixty Percent (60%) of the equity in the property . . . [and] $2, 000 per month in alimony."[3]

         (3) As the hearing date approached, Mason and Sarah confirmed that, because of their stipulation, the only issues remaining for the Family Court to decide were the division of the equity in the former marital residence, division of the marital personalty using the two-list method, alimony, child support, and attorney's fees.

         (4) The parties further simplified the Family Court's task by jointly submitting three alternative child support calculations, among which the only variable was the amount of alimony that the court might order Mason to pay Sarah: $2, 000 per month, $1, 000 per month, or no alimony at all. Thus, the Family Court's child support analysis would be, by design, perfunctory once it decided what, if any, alimony Mason would pay.

         (5) After the ancillary hearing, the Family Court awarded Sarah sixty percent of the net proceeds from the anticipated sale of the residence, divided the marital retirement accounts-consistent with the parties' stipulation-on a 50/50 basis, selected Mason's lists of personal property as the operative lists for purposes of the two-list method (and therefore allowed Sarah the opportunity to select which of the two of Mason's lists she wished to retain), and ordered Mason to pay Sarah $1, 000 per month in permanent alimony and $416 per month in child support. In a separate order entered two months later, the Family Court, noting that Mason had failed to comply with the court's rules on multiple occasions, ordered that he bear responsibility for fifty percent of Sarah's attorney's fees and costs.

         (6) Mason argues that the Family Court erred in dividing the marital estate, abused its discretion in awarding Sarah permanent alimony, and "erred in the facts of the case, ignoring facts and values[, ] therefore, improperly skewing the entire outcome of the opinion."[4]

         (7) "Under 13 Del. C. § 1513(a), the Family Court is required to consider a list of at least eleven factors as it deems just when exercising its broad discretion to divide marital property in an equitable manner."[5] Unless the Family Court abuses its discretion, this Court will not disturb the resulting division.[6] This same standard of review is applied to the Family Court's alimony determinations. If its alimony determination "reflects due consideration of the statutory factors found in section 1512"[7] and the court exercises its broad discretion in a reasonable manner, we will not disturb its rulings.

         (8) Having reviewed the record and the Family Court's order, we are satisfied that it carefully considered the evidence and the statutory factors it must consider and arrived at reasonable conclusions regarding the division of the parties' marital property. Mason's challenge to the Family Court's property-division order is puzzling. For instance, he cites the equal division of his retirement accounts as the "prime example" of the flaws he sees in the court's analysis, characterizing it as a "summary determination."[8] But he does not explain why the court should have discussed the basis for this conclusion when it merely carried out the parties' wishes as reflected in their pretrial stipulation. This contention is, in a word, frivolous.

         (9) What remains of Mason's criticism of the Family Court's equitable division of the marital estate is his claim that the Family Court made no factual findings in support of its award of a disproportionate share (60%) of the equity in the former marital residence to Sarah. This, in our view, unfairly characterizes the Family Court's ancillary order. Contrary to Mason's reading, the court diligently reviewed the statutory factors found in 13 Del. C. § 1513 and made specific factual findings in support of its decision. Most notably, the Family Court found that the marriage was a lengthy one during which Sarah "stayed her career . . . [to] take care of the family"[9] and that, because of the disparity in the parties' respective abilities to generate income (Mason is employed as an engineer earning a six-figure annual income and Sarah is a teacher earning less than half of ...

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