The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog

Ho Hum Opinion from the Court of Appeals

After last week’s action packed set of opinions, the Court of Appeals released a single published opinion this week that, despite clocking in at nearly 32 pages, will likely garner little more than a yawn even from the practitioners of Domestic Relations law.  Horacio Eugenio Sobol v. Christine Marie Sobol is notable more for the peek behind the curtain it gives us into the world of high-priced accounting firms than any new ground in legal thought.  Mr. Sobol is a partner in the accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers where he has worked throughout his marriage to the now former Mrs. Sobol.  Mrs. Sobol completed her master’s degree early in the marriage and worked intermittently until the couple’s third child was born and has since been a homemaker.  By all accounts, the family had a comfortable lifestyle.

The recitation of the facts takes 13 pages and includes a significant amount of detail on how PWC structures it’s partners’ capital interest in the firm.  As you can imagine, this involves a great deal of money being classified as salary, deferred income, and capital deposits.  You can probably also imagine that this led to a rather extensive amount of expert testimony concerning what should be considered marital property, and that is the primary point of appeal — the trial court’s treatment of this property in calculating equitable distribution.  Rather than go through the Court’s very extensive analysis of the issue, I will simply quote briefly from the being of the analysis: “All trial court rulings come to an appellate court with a presumption of correctness. Because making an equitable distribution award is often a difficult task, we rely heavily on the discretion of the trial judge in weighing the many considerations and circumstances that are presented in each case.”

As you can probably guess, the husband gets no joy from this statement or the analysis that follows, as the Court of Appeals concludes that there was no error in the circuit court’s analysis of the ruling on equitable distribution.  Likewise, the husband’s challenge to the award of attorney’s fees to the wife.  The only sop for Mr. Sobol is that the Court finds that it was error for the circuit court to require him to make his wife the beneficiary of an insurance policy.  This may be the one area of the opinion which will be instructive, if not exactly earth-shartteringly so.  The reason the Court of Appeals reverses on this point is that the circuit court made an error of law — thus the discretion and deference standard does not apply.

The power of a court to require a party to maintain life insurance for the benefit of a former spouse is controlled by Code § 20-107.1:1.  That statute clearly states that the party can be subject to maintaining a policy where the spouse “has been designated as a beneficiary of such policy during the marriage.”  As Mrs. Sobol was not the designated beneficiary during the marriage, it was error for the court to require Mr. Sobol to make her the beneficiary as part of the divorce.

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