In re the Marriage of Cody M. Morton, Appellee, and Samantha Morton, n/k/a Samantha Lee, Appellant
Paso County District Court No. 12DR5368. Honorable Deborah J.
Morton, Pro se.
Family Law, P.C., John B. Ciccolella, Colorado Springs,
Colorado, for Appellant.
by JUDGE TAUBMAN. Berger, J., concurs. Hawthorne, J., concurs
in part and dissents in part.
[¶1] In this dissolution of marriage action,
Samantha Morton, now known as Samantha Lee (wife), raises two
principal issues on appeal relating to the trial court's
consideration of her student loans obtained during the
marriage. The first issue is whether the trial court erred in
entering wife's loans as her " separate debt."
The second issue is whether the trial court erred in
considering wife's student loans as a financial resource
in determining the amount of maintenance she was to receive.
A third and related issue is whether the trial court erred in
determining maintenance before it had concluded its
allocation of marital property.
[¶2] We agree with wife's contentions on
these issues and, therefore, reverse the trial court's
judgment and orders. We remand the case to the trial court to
reconsider the permanent orders.
[¶3] This case involves a marriage of
approximately six years. During the marriage, Cody M. Morton
(husband) was employed as a firefighter, while wife worked
sporadically and also attended school to obtain training as a
radiological technologist (RT). Three trial court orders are
at issue here: (1) a final order, dated July 2, 2013; (2) an
order concerning the decree of dissolution of marriage and
partial final orders, dated August 8, 2013; and (3) an order
regarding wife's second motion for posttrial relief dated
October 16, 2013.
[¶4] In dividing marital and separate
property, the court ordered that wife would be responsible
for all of the student loan debt: $6449 as marital debt and
$33,000 as wife's " separate debt." As to the
separate debt, the court found that it was not " fair or
equitable" for husband to be responsible for debt that
wife " borrowed . . . after the parties separated, after
the petition for dissolution was filed[,] and after temporary
orders." Wife contends that the court abused its
discretion by finding that all of the student loans incurred
after the parties' separation were her separate debt. We
[¶5] An order classifying property as a
marital asset or a separate asset presents a legal issue that
is based on the court's factual findings. In re
Marriage of Krejci, 2013 COA 6, ¶ 3, 297 P.3d 1035,
1037. We defer to the trial court's factual findings
absent an abuse of discretion and independently review its
resolution of legal questions. In re Marriage of
Williamson, 205 P.3d 538, 540 (Colo.App. 2009).
[¶6] A party's student loan obtained
during marriage constitutes marital debt. In re Marriage
of Speirs, 956 P.2d 622, 624 (Colo.App. 1997). Any debts
incurred by a party during a predecree separation are
likewise marital. In re Marriage of Burford, 26 P.3d
550, 560 (Colo.App. 2001).
[¶7] It is undisputed that wife incurred all
of her student loans during the marriage or during the
parties' predecree separation. Thus, all of the student
loans constitute marital debt. See id.;
Speirs, 956 P.2d at 624. To the extent the trial
court classified $33,000 as wife's " separate
debt" solely because she obtained them during the
parties' separation, it erred.
[¶8] The student loans comprise
approximately one third of the parties' overall marital
estate. Because the error affects the parties'
substantial rights, the order dividing the property must be
reversed. See In re Marriage of Balanson,
25 P.3d 28, 36 (Colo. 2001) (holding errors by the court in
dividing property are reversible when the aggregate effect of
such errors affects the parties' substantial rights);
see also In re Marriage of Zappanti, 80
P.3d 889, 893 (Colo.App. 2003) (holding an error affecting a
large percentage of the marital estate requires remand to the
district court to correct such error).
[¶9] The determination that a student loan
is marital debt, however, does not foreclose a trial court
from allocating responsibility for payment of the loan
entirely to the party who incurred it. See
Speirs, 956 P.2d at 624. A court does not abuse its
discretion in finding that a student loan should be solely
the incurring party's responsibility because the
party's degree was earned later in the marriage and will
primarily benefit that party. See id. at
625; see also In re Marriage of Morehouse,
121 P.3d 264, 267 (Colo.App. 2005) (holding a court is under
no obligation to divide marital debts equally).
[¶10] Thus, in dividing the marital property
on remand, the court should first include wife's total
amount of student loans as a marital debt. It must then
exercise its discretion to allocate that debt equitably as
part of the overall property distribution. See
Speirs, 956 P.2d at 624.
[¶11] We reject wife's assertion that
the total amount of student loans was $33,452.08, and that
the court clearly erred by finding she obtained an additional
$33,000 during the separation. The record reveals conflicting
evidence as to the total amount of the student loans. For
example, the record shows that wife obtained approximately
$16,000 in loans between 2007 and 2008 for her RT program and
took out a $6258 loan for the sonogram program she began in
July 2012. Wife also testified that sonogram school would
cost $32,000. Nevertheless, wife testified that her loans for
both the RT and sonogram programs totaled only $33,452.
[¶12] Further, wife's January and
February 2013 financial affidavits show that her Stafford
loans totaled $40,713.54, $25,000 of which was disbursed
during the separation. However, Exhibit G shows that she
incurred a total of $45,168 in Stafford and direct
unsubsidized loans, with $17,000 in disbursements occurring
during the parties' separation.
[¶13] Where the evidence is unclear, we
defer to the trial court's findings. See In
re Marriage of Bowles, 916 P.2d 615, 617 (Colo.App.
1995). Thus, we may not disturb the trial court's finding
that wife obtained $33,000 in student loans after the
parties' separation. See id.; see also In re
Marriage of Plesich, 881 P.2d 379, 381 (Colo.App. 1994)
(reviewing court views evidence in the light most favorable
to the court's order).
[¶14] Because we are reversing the trial
court's division of marital property and debts, on remand
the court must consider the parties' economic
circumstances at the time of the remand. See In
re Marriage of Wells, 850 P.2d 694, 699 (Colo. 1993).