Supreme Court At-a-Glance Contributor Jonathan P. Killeen, Shareholder at Boyle | Shaughnessy Law PC in Manchester, NH

Nos. 2021-0032 and 2021-0036

February 15, 2022

Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded

 

  • Cross-appeals concerning final divorce decree and whether trial court erred by: (1) determining it lacked jurisdiction to divide property in which third-parties had an ownership interest; (2) deviating from child support guidelines; (3) denying a request for alimony; (4) ordering the child to attend public school serving the wife’s residence; and (5) dividing the parties’ two firearms.

 

Kelly Routhier (wife) and Matthew Routhier (husband) were engaged to be married in 2013. Thereafter, the husband and his parents acquired a piece of property in Dunbarton (Dunbarton property) on which the husband intended to build a house.  The husband’s parents financed the purchase by securing a home equity line of credit (HELOC) on their home.  The husband and the wife married in 2013, had a child together, but eventually filed for divorce in 2018.  As part of the divorce proceeding, the trial court awarded joint-decision making authority between the parties, ordered the child to primarily reside with the wife, denied the wife’s request for temporary alimony, and ordered the husband to pay bi-weekly child support. Following a final hearing, the trial court issued a final divorce decree and parenting schedule. In doing so, the trial court awarded the parties joint decision-making authority and approximately equal parenting time, ordered the child to attend public school serving the wife’s residence in Hampstead, and reduced the amount of bi-weekly child support the husband was previously ordered to pay. The trial court also determined that it lacked jurisdiction to distribute the Dunbarton property as part of the marital estate because the husbands’ parents’ ownership interest in it. Finally, the trial court also divided two of the parties’ firearms. Both parties filed motions to reconsider, which were denied.   The parties then cross-appealed the trial court’s final divorce decree.

With regard to the wife’s appeal, the Court concluded that the husband’s ownership interest in the Dunbarton property was marital property and, therefore, the trial court had jurisdiction to distribute the husband’s interest as part of the divorce decree.  Although the husband’s parents had concurrent ownership in the Dunbarton property, the Dunbarton property was unencumbered by any promissory note or mortgage owed to the husbands’ parents.  As a result, distributing the husband’s interest would not invalidate his parents’ ownership interest in the property or affect the parents’ HELOC.  The Court also concluded that the trial court erred when it deviated from the child support guidelines by decreasing the husband’s child support obligation without providing an adequate justification. The trial court reached its decision based upon the parties’ equal or approximately equal parenting residential responsibilities, which the Court stated does not by itself constitute special circumstances supporting the downward deviation.  The trial court otherwise failed to provide written findings pertaining to any other particular special circumstances justifying the downward adjustment. As a result, the Court vacated the trial court’s child support award and remanded to the trial court for specific findings. The Court likewise concluded that the trial court’s written findings were insufficient to support its decision denying the wife’s request for alimony.  In particular, the trial court failed to explain how any of its factual findings supported its decision to deny the requested alimony. As a result, the Court vacated the alimony portion of the trial court’s order and remanded to the trial court.

With regard to the husband’s appeal, the Court concluded that the trial court did not unsustainably exercise its discretion by ordering the child to attend public school serving the wife’s residence in Hampstead because the trial court utilized the best interest standard and its findings provided an objective basis sufficient to sustain its decision. The Court also concluded that the parties’ firearms were properly considered marital property subject to distribution based on a clear and unambiguous interpretation of the term “property” contained in RSA 458:16-a, I.

 

Matthew Routhier, self-represented party, by brief; Marshall Law Office PLLC, of East Kingston (Keri J. Marshall on the brief), for the respondent; Cullen Collimore PLLC, of Nashua (Kevin G. Collimore), for intervenor Elliot Health Systems, filed no brief.