Sparks v. Sparks, Docket No. 90300

Citation440 Mich. 141,485 N.W.2d 893
Decision Date01 January 1992
Docket NumberDocket No. 90300,No. 5,5
PartiesMarilyn F. SPARKS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Clement SPARKS, Jr., Defendant-Appellee. Calendar,
CourtSupreme Court of Michigan


In this divorce case we are asked to consider the element of fault as it relates to the division of marital assets. While marital misconduct remains one of the considerations for establishing the division of property, it is only one of several relevant factors that the trial court must consider to reach an equitable division. In this case we are left with the firm conviction that the award was inequitable because disproportionate weight was ascribed to fault, and therefore we remand for a new hearing before a different judge.


The parties had been married for twenty-six years when the complaint for divorce was filed on May 11, 1987. At the time of trial, the plaintiff-wife was forty-two years old and the defendant-husband was forty-five years old. There is one adult child of the marriage. Throughout the marriage both parties were regularly employed, but at the time of trial the plaintiff was unemployed. Her sole income at that time consisted of temporary alimony ordered by the court while the divorce proceedings were pending. The defendant, on the other hand, was employed at the time of trial,earning an annual salary of approximately $41,000. The defendant earned his college degree during the marriage while the plaintiff ceased her education at age sixteen when she married the defendant.

The trial court's findings of fact included a finding that the plaintiff's sexual infidelity, and her desire to get out of the marriage, caused the breakdown of the marriage. The trial judge then awarded no alimony, attorney fees of $500 to the plaintiff, 1 and a property division of twenty-five percent to the plaintiff and seventy-five percent to the defendant. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on the issue of alimony and remanded for an evidentiary hearing. Furthermore, in a divided opinion, the Court affirmed the trial court's division of assets stating,

"Although the division of assets in the instant case may appear unduly harsh, we are not convinced we would have reached a different result had we been in the trial judge's position....

"[A]lthough perhaps not the division we would have chosen, given that fault or misconduct of one of the parties is a proper consideration when fashioning an equitable property settlement, ... we find no abuse of discretion...." 2

This Court granted leave to appeal. 437 Mich. 1036, 471 N.W.2d 559 (1991).


As a threshold issue, we need to clarify the appellate standard of review that applies to matters such as alimony and property distribution. The decision in this case was released on August 8, 1990, just one month before this Court decided Beason v. Beason, 435 Mich. 791, 460 N.W.2d 207 (1990). In Beason, we declared that the clearly erroneous standard of appellate review applies to findings of fact in a divorce case. In preserving the distinction between the fact-finding function and dispositional rulings such as the awarding of alimony and the division of property, we said, in passing, that "the court must exercise its discretion in fashioning a disposition." Id. at 798, 460 N.W.2d 207. 3

After Beason was released various panels of the Court of Appeals interpreted differently its effect on the standard of review in divorce cases. See, e.g., Reigle v. Reigle, 189 Mich.App. 386, 474 N.W.2d 297 (1991) (when a decision lies in the discretion of the trial court it should be reviewed for an abuse of that discretion); Bowers v. Bowers, 190 Mich.App. 51, 475 N.W.2d 394 (1991) (all orders and judgments in a divorce case should be affirmed unless the trial court's factual findings are clearly erroneous); Schubring v. Schubring, 190 Mich.App. 468, 476 N.W.2d 434 (1991) (review de novo of dispositional rulings remains the appropriate standard after Beason); Thames v. Thames, 191 Mich.App. 299, 309, 477 N.W.2d 496 (1991) ("We will not disturb a property division unless we are convinced that we would have reached a different result").

A long line of cases before Beason had established that equity decisions were reviewed de novo but were not reversed unless the reviewing court was convinced that it would have reached a different result:

"We hear and consider chancery cases de novo on the record on appeal.... This Court, however, is inclined to give considerable weight to the findings of the trial judge in equity cases. This is primarily because the trial judge is in a better position to test the credibility of the witnesses by observing them in court and hearing them testify than is an appellate court which has no such opportunity. We do not ordinarily disturb the findings of the trial judge in an equity case unless, after an examination of the entire record, we reach the conclusion we would have arrived at a different result had we been in the position of the trial judge." Christine Bldg. Co. v. City of Troy, 367 Mich. 508, 517-518, 116 N.W.2d 816 (1962).

This same standard was said to apply both to findings of fact and dispositional rulings. But, as recognized in Beason, although the standard of review in divorce cases was labeled de novo, the findings of fact were not truly considered de novo. Rather, the factual findings of the trial court were accorded substantial deference and not lightly reversed on the ground that the trial court was in a better position to evaluate the witnesses. Recognition of the superior position of the trial court in evaluating credibility was one rationale employed in Beason:

"[W]e do see one clear and consistent historical theme: appellate courts have recognized the superior position of the trial court in evaluating the evidence and have hesitated to interfere with factual findings." 435 Mich. at 799, 460 N.W.2d 207.

This rationale loses pertinence when the appellate court is reviewing a dispositional ruling because that task is not solely grounded in evaluating credibility. Beason recognized and preserved the distinction between findings of fact and dispositional rulings. While Beason recognized that the scope of appellate review of findings of fact had never been truly de novo and that the findings had, in fact, been accorded substantial deference, the broad power to exercise discretion in dispositional rulings had not been so circumscribed. The judge's exercise of discretion in fashioning a property division is not entirely based on the demeanor of witnesses or issues of credibility; accordingly, the reasons for great appellate deference are simply inapplicable. 4 The trial court is not in a position superior to the appellate court in this area of applying conscience and reason, and it is the duty of the appellate court to reach an independent conclusion. Charlton v. Charlton, 397 Mich. 84, 95, 243 N.W.2d 261 (1976) ("The appellate court may review the trial court record, come to a different conclusion and state the reasons").

Beason also relied on the rule that requires appellate courts to accept findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. 5 In contrast, the statutes dealing with the disposition of property upon divorce do not require any deference to the lower court. Indeed, the statutes each include an indication that general principles of equity must be considered. 6 Because the Legislature has granted broad powers to the court to exercise discretion in fashioning equitable decrees, and because equity cases involve issues that are not governed by a clear legal standard, 7 it is inappropriate to apply the formulation of clear legal error to the dispositional ruling. In Beason we did not eliminate de novo review altogether, rather we distinguished factual findings from dispositional rulings and held that "the factual findings of a trial court in a divorce case are to be reviewed for clear error." 435 Mich. at 805, 460 N.W.2d 207. The clear error test has always been part of the proper application of the de novo review standard, but its application is confined to the review of factual issues. 8

Similarly, while a ruling that is an abuse of discretion certainly should be overturned, 9 the review of dispositional rulings is not limited to a review for an abuse of discretion. Divorce actions in Michigan are still considered a type of equity suit even though Michigan no longer has separate equity courts. 10 In equity cases it is not enough for the trial court to have acted in a nonarbitrary manner; it must also reach a disposition that is fair and just. As stated in Grinding Machine Corp. v. Bradley, 316 Mich. 396, 399, 25 N.W.2d 520 (1947):

"The decree should not be reversed or altered unless it appears that it is not in accordance with the just rights of the parties."

The test for an abuse of discretion is very strict, 11 and ofttimes elevates the standard of review to an "apparently insurmountable height." People v. Talley, 410 Mich. 378, 398, 301 N.W.2d 809 (1981) (Levin, J., concurring). But a disposition ruling may be against the just rights of the parties without being a "perversity of will." 12 Limiting review to an abuse of discretion would have the effect of rendering the discretion virtually immune to appellate review where there is any evidence to support the ruling. This has not been the law in Michigan. 13 For example, in Paul v Paul, 362 Mich. 43, 106 N.W.2d 384 (1960), ...

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  • Reed v. Reed
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    ...... Sparks v. Sparks, 440 Mich. 141, 151-152, 485 N.W.2d 893 (1992) . The trial court's dispositional ruling is discretionary and will be affirmed unless this ......
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