Murphy v. Murphy, Appellate Case No. 2015-000676

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
PartiesDebbie Bowers Murphy, Appellant, v. Thomas Hayne Murphy, Respondent.
Docket NumberUnpublished Opinion No. 2017-UP-318,Appellate Case No. 2015-000676
Decision Date26 July 2017

Debbie Bowers Murphy, Appellant,
Thomas Hayne Murphy, Respondent.

Appellate Case No. 2015-000676
Unpublished Opinion No. 2017-UP-318


Heard April 11, 2017
July 26, 2017


Appeal From Newberry County
Peter R. Nuessle, Family Court Judge


William Chadwick Jenkins, of Pope & Hudgens, P.A., of Newberry, for Appellant.

S. Jahue Moore, Jr., of Moore Taylor Law Firm, P.A., of West Columbia, and Katherine Carruth Goode, of Winnsboro, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM: Debbie B. Murphy (Wife) appeals the family court's order granting her a divorce from Thomas H. Murphy (Husband), arguing the family court erred by failing to (1) adopt her proposed equitable distribution plan, (2) award her alimony, (3) award her attorney's fees and costs, and (4) grant a divorce on the ground of

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physical cruelty. We reverse the family court's denial of alimony but otherwise affirm.


The Murphys married in 2003, when Husband was forty-nine and Wife forty-four. It was Wife's second marriage, Husband's third. They had no children together. They separated in February 2013, and Wife began this action the next month, seeking a divorce based on physical cruelty, equitable distribution, alimony, and attorney's fees. The family court granted Wife temporary possession of the marital home and ordered her to pay all associated costs apart from a second mortgage payment, which Husband was ordered to pay. The family court ordered Husband to pay $3,125 per month in temporary alimony and $5,000 toward Wife's attorney's fees.

At the August 2014 final hearing, Wife testified she injured her knees in 2004 while working as a teacher and was out of work for about a year. Wife's employer, Newberry County School District, accommodated her without reducing her salary. According to Wife, she still had problems with her knees despite multiple surgeries and physical therapy. Wife continued working until April 2014, when she was awarded long-term disability due to her knee condition. She testified she did not intend to return to work.1 Dr. Phillip Milner testified he treated Wife after her 2004 knee injury. Dr. Milner did not see Wife from 2005 until 2011, when he diagnosed her with advanced arthritis of the knees. Dr. Milner opined Wife would soon need double knee replacement surgery, without which she could only return to work if allowed to sit ninety percent of the time.

The parties' relationship was rocky. Both alleged acts of aggression and rage toward the other. The denouement of their marriage appeared to be a fight that erupted on February 17, 2013, after they returned home from dinner. Tempers were frayed, then lost. Husband hit Wife with a loaf of bread. A scuffle ensued, and they both fell to the floor. Wife sustained a cut to her head, and it was later discovered she had fractured her wrist. Husband was charged with Criminal Domestic Violence (CDV) of a High and Aggravated Nature.

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Wife testified she contributed $99,877 of non-marital funds toward the $365,000 purchase of the marital home in 2007. Wife admitted there was no agreement she would recover her contribution in the event of divorce.2

Wife declared $6,038 per month in income, consisting of $2,913 in disability payments and $3,125 in alimony. Wife testified she had applied for Social Security disability benefits, which would include Medicare coverage. She testified she had earned $55,699 per year, or $4,642 per month, as a teacher. Wife expected her monthly income to decrease if her Social Security application was approved.

Wife testified Husband earned over $100,000 per year during their marriage. She submitted evidence that showed he earned between $100,000 and $118,000 per year. Husband testified that during the marriage his annual salary varied between $80,000 and $110,000. He admitted he made around $118,000 for the year ending in May 2013.

Wife sought credit for decreasing the marital home's first mortgage balance by over $13,000 while the divorce action was pending, and $2,214 she paid for landscaping and maintenance, as well as the $99,877 down payment. To account for these credits, she asked the family court to award her eighty-five percent of the proceeds from the eventual sale of the marital home.

The Murphys' marital estate had a net value of $325,507 at the final hearing, $192,778 of which was equity in the marital home. Husband had a non-marital net worth of $23,514, as well as a non-marital vested retirement benefit that will provide him $200 per month once he reaches age sixty-five. Wife's non-marital net worth was $240,918.

Wife also requested attorney's fees totaling $23,090, $20,090 of which was outstanding and $3,000 of which would reimburse Wife for a payment she previously made. The $5,000 Husband had been ordered to pay Wife in temporary fees was not included in the $23,090 sought.

In its February 2015 Final Order, the family court granted the Murphys a divorce on the ground of one year's separation. It found, "Prior to the commencement of [the

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final] hearing, [Wife] moved to supplement her pleadings to allege a cause of action for divorce on the ground of a one year continuous separation." The family court acknowledged the Murphys' health problems but found both were "in fairly good physical and mental condition for their age." The court found Wife's gross monthly income was $6,038 while Husband's was $7,871. It also noted Wife's employer accommodated her after her knee injuries, and knee surgery would likely allow Wife to return to work as a teacher and earn an income similar to what she earned while married to Husband. The family court found Wife had significant non-marital assets that would assist with future expenses, while Husband had fewer non-marital assets and would need to satisfy future expenses through continued employment. Regarding marital misconduct, the family court found both parties bore responsibility, noting, "The details of [Husband's] [CDV] charge are unclear at best. . . . Both parties testified that the other was at fault. Both parties testified that the other engaged in marital misconduct in the past to include physical and mental abuse."

The family court found Husband and Wife contributed equally to acquisition of the marital estate and concluded an equal division was "a fair and reasonable apportionment." It ordered the sale of the marital home, the proceeds of which would first be used to pay the marital debt and then divided equally between the parties. The family court terminated Husband's temporary alimony obligation and allowed him to live in the marital home until its sale, provided he pay all associated costs. Finally, the family court denied Wife's requests for alimony and attorney's fees.

Wife moved to reconsider, arguing the family court erred by failing to award her a special equity in the marital home or, alternatively, a larger percentage of the marital estate. Wife also argued the family court erred by failing to award her alimony and attorney's fees and not granting her a divorce on the ground of physical cruelty. After a hearing, the family court denied Wife's motion. This appeal followed.


Our scope of review in this equity case is de novo, and we may find the facts based on our view of the greater weight of the evidence. See Buist v. Buist, 410 S.C. 569, 574, 766 S.E.2d 381, 383 (2014). This does not, however, remove appellant's burden to prove error or diminish our recognition that the trial court had the advantage of seeing and hearing the witnesses. Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 385, 709 S.E.2d 650, 652 (2011). We will only disturb a family court's decisions regarding equitable division and alimony if they amount to an abuse of discretion, which means they

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derive from an error of law or lack adequate factual support. Stoney v. Stoney, 417 S.C. 345, 368-69, 790 S.E.2d 31, 43 (Ct. App. 2016).


Wife argues the family court erred in its award of equitable distribution. She asserts she is entitled to a larger share of the marital estate due to her contribution toward the purchase of the marital home, Husband's physical abuse, her inability to work, and Husband's non-marital assets.

"[E]quitable distribution is based on a recognition that marriage is, among other things, an economic partnership." Johnson v. Johnson, 296 S.C. 289, 293, 372 S.E.2d 107, 109 (Ct. App. 1988). When a marriage ends, division of the property acquired is determined by the guiding equities set forth in section 20-3-620 of the South Carolina Code (2014). These statutory factors are waypoints to ensure the marital estate is distributed "in a manner which fairly reflects each spouse's contribution to the economic partnership and also the relative effect of ending that partnership on each of the parties." Johnson, 296 S.C. at 298, 372 S.E.2d at 112. The discretion to weigh these factors rests with the family court; on appeal we review only the overall fairness of the division. If the balance struck is fair, we must uphold it. Crossland v. Crossland, 408 S.C. 443, 456, 759 S.E.2d 419, 425-26 (2014).

Although Wife contributed a substantial sum toward the purchase of the marital home, it would be improper to simply award her a "credit" for the contribution. See Dawkins v. Dawkins, 386 S.C. 169, 173, 687 S.E.2d 52, 54 (2010) (overruling a prior case "to the extent it may be read to allow a family court to separate and subtract [a financial contribution] from the marital estate and then award this 'special equity' to the [contributing party] in addition to his or her portion of the court-ordered division of the marital estate"), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 709 S.E.2d 650 (2011). Instead, Wife's contribution is simply "one of...

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