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Collins v. Wassell

Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawaii

March 21, 2013

COLLEEN P. COLLINS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JOHN A. WASSELL, Defendant-Appellee.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION IN WEST'S HAWAII REPORTS AND PACIFIC REPORTER

APPEAL FROM THE FAMILY COURT OF THE THIRD CIRCUIT (FC-D NO. 07-1-0206)

Joy A. San Buenaventura, for Plaintiff-Appellant

Andrew S. Iwashita, for Defendant-Appellee

Nakamura, C.J., and Foley, J., with Reifurth, J., dissenting

SUMMARY DISPOSITION ORDER

Plaintiff-Appellant Colleen P. Collins (Collins) appeals from the September 9, 2009, Divorce Decree entered in the Family Court of the Third Circuit (Family Court).[1] The crux of Collins's appeal is that the Family Court erred when it concluded that Collins and her ex-husband Defendant-Appellee John A. Wassell (Wassell) did not form a premarital economic partnership, within the meaning of Helbush v. Helbush, 108 Hawai'i 508, 122 P.3d 288 (App. 2005). Specifically, Collins argues that the Family Court erred by: (1) concluding that the parties did not participate in a premarital economic partnership between June 18, 2000, the date of their initial wedding ceremony (Ceremony), and January 19, 2005, the date on which they were legally married (DOM); (2) finding that, following the Ceremony, Collins and Wassell agreed "that each of them would maintain separate financial identities, so that Ms. Collins could continue to qualify for the financial aid she needed to send her daughters to their schools of choice"; (3) finding that "Ms. Collins believed that the financial responsibility for sending her daughters to college was hers alone"; (4) finding that Wassell owed Collins $4, 239.59 for the mortgage payoff on the Hawai'i Paradise Park residence owned by Wassell (HPP Residence); and (5) valuing Wassell's assets as of the DOM instead of the date of cohabitation (DOC) and dividing the assets and equalizing the parties' obligations using the DOM valuations. We affirm.

I.

A.

After the parties' divorce trial, the Family Court entered its Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Decision of the Court, which made the following relevant findings of fact:

On June 18, 2000, Collins and Wassell "met at the park with their friends and their minister for the apparent purpose of getting married." The couple "exchanged their vows, and they and all those assembled believed they had participated in a valid marriage ceremony." After the Ceremony, Collins and Wassell "began to have second thoughts about the practical consequences of their union and asked the minister not to mail in the marriage license and certificate to the State Department of Health[.]" The minister gave Collins the documents "with an understanding that the newly married couple would mail them in themselves." The following day, "the couple went on a short honeymoon[.]"

The parties' second thoughts about the marriage arose from the fact that Collins had two daughters attending expensive private mainland colleges, with tuition in excess of $30, 000 per year for one daughter and approximately $22, 000 per year for the other. Because "financial aid [was] calculated on the basis that Ms. Collins was a single parent, Ms. Collins actually paid approximately $8, 000 a year for both daughters, a considerable savings over the full tuition." "Ms. Collins was concerned that if financial aid for her daughters was calculated on the basis of the joint income and assets arising from her marriage to Mr. Wassell, that it would become considerably more expensive to send her daughters to the schools they were then attending." "Ms. Collins believed that if she were to marry Mr. Wassell and disclose the financial information reflecting her change in financial status to the two colleges, " the financial aid for her daughters would be reduced and "she would likely be unable to afford the resulting tuition, with the consequence that her daughters would not be able to attend those colleges." To avoid that consequence, Collins and Wassell agreed (1) not to mail their marriage license and certificate to the Department of Health; and (2) that "each of them would maintain separate financial identities, so that Ms. Collins could continue to qualify for the financial aid she needed to send her daughters to their schools of choice."

Collins "believed that the financial responsibility for sending her daughters to college was hers alone, and that Mr. Wassell did not share in that obligation[.]" Similarly, Wassell believed that he was not obligated "to assist Ms. Collins with the financial burden arising from her daughters' college education."

Collins and Wassell never mailed in their marriage license or certificate. About four months after the Ceremony, they received a letter from the Department of Health inquiring about the marriage license and certificate. Collins and Wassell responded by sending "a letter to the Department of Health signed by both of them stating that they had decided not to get married after all."

After the parties' "honeymoon, " they began living together. Wassell owned the HPP Residence, while Collins owned a townhouse in Pacific Heights (Townhouse). Although the parties "went back and forth between the two residences" for a while, they eventually decided to live in the Townhouse. While they were living in the Townhouse, Wassell rented out the HPP Residence for some of the time, but never shared the rent with Collins despite the fact that he did not pay Collins rent. Soon after the Ceremony, Wassell added Collins's name to one of his bank accounts (Joint Account). The parties "agreed that the [J]oint [A]ccount would be used for household expenses; both were to deposit funds in the account." The parties deposited the cash gifts they received at the Ceremony into the Joint Account. Collins made regular monthly deposits of $500.00 into the Joint Account while Wassell made "few, if any, deposits" into that account. Except for the Joint Account, between the DOC and the DOM, Collins and Wassell maintained separate bank and retirement accounts.

In 2001, Collins decided to sell the Townhouse. Before the sale, Wassell made some minor improvements. Collins sold the Townhouse and received a check in the amount of $23, 020.74 at the close of escrow, which was deposited into the Joint Account. Collins subsequently withdrew $13, 647.26 to purchase a vehicle which was titled in her name only. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Townhouse, totaling $4, 239.59, was used to pay off the remaining balance on Wassell's mortgage on the HPP Residence. Following the sale of the Townhouse, the parties moved into the HPP Residence.

Collins's youngest daughter finished college in 2005. With no further need for Collins to apply for or receive financial aid toward her daughters' college educations, Collins and Wassell legally married on January 19, 2005. As of the DOM, Wassell owed Collins a $4, 239.59 debt, the amount Collins used to pay off the remainder of Wassell's HPP Residence mortgage.

The Family Court entered further findings regarding the value of the parties' assets on the DOM.

B.

The Family Court concluded that between the Ceremony (which shortly preceded the DOC) and the DOM, "the parties did not participate in an 'economic partnership' within the meaning of Helbush v. Helbush, 108 Haw[ai'i] 508 (App. 2005), and the division of their marital assets by the court must therefore be based upon the date of their legal marriage." The Family ...


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