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Hooker v. Hooker

Supreme Court of Florida

March 30, 2017

NANCY HOOKER, Petitioner,
TIMOTHY I. HOOKER, Respondent. TIMOTHY I. HOOKER, Petitioner,
NANCY HOOKER, Respondent.


         Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Direct Conflict of Decisions Fourth District - Case No. 4D13-1841, (Palm Beach County)

          Robert J. Hauser of Pankauski Hauser PLLC, West Palm Beach, Florida; and Susan G. Chopin of Chopin & Chopin, LP, West Palm Beach, Florida, for Petitioner/Cross-Respondent

          Jane Kreusler-Walsh, Rebecca Mercier Vargas, and Stephanie L. Serafin of the Law Office of Kreusler-Walsh, Compiani & Vargas, P.A., West Palm Beach, Florida; and Melinda P. Gamot of The Gamot Law Firm, P.L., Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, for Respondent/Cross-Petitioner

          PARIENTE, J.

         The issue in this dissolution of marriage case is whether the Fourth District Court of Appeal applied an improper standard of review to the trial court's factual findings regarding whether a spouse had donative intent to establish that property was an interspousal gift and, therefore, included in the marital estate subject to equitable distribution. Hooker v. Hooker, 174 So.3d 507, 511 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015). Nancy Hooker (Wife) petitioned this Court for review. We accepted jurisdiction because the Fourth District's opinion expressly and directly conflicts with this Court's decision in Shaw v. Shaw, 334 So.2d 13 (Fla. 1976), the First District Court of Appeal's decision in Merrill v. Merrill, 357 So.2d 792 (Fla. 1st DCA 1978), and the Third District Court of Appeal's decision in Abreu v. Amaro, 534 So.2d 771 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988), on a question of law. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.[1]

         We conclude that the appropriate standard of review is competent, substantial evidence. And, in this case, the Fourth District improperly reweighed the evidence under a preponderance of the evidence standard. Finally, we conclude that the record contains competent, substantial evidence to support the trial court's findings that both properties at issue were marital and, therefore, subject to equitable distribution. Accordingly, we affirm in part and quash in part the Fourth District's decision, which results in reinstating the trial court's Amended Final Judgment.


         Nancy and Timothy Hooker were married in September 1987 in New York. In 1989, the Hookers moved to Florida. Before their marriage, the parties executed a prenuptial agreement, the validity of which is not disputed. Pertinent to this dispute, the prenuptial agreement provided that, upon dissolution, each party would retain his or her premarital assets and any appreciation of those assets. Both parties had independent sources of income from family inheritances, and they maintained independent finances throughout the marriage.[2] The parties had a mutual passion for equestrian training, boarding, and showing, which was at the center of their marriage and their day-to-day activities.[3]

         In 2010, following a twenty-three-year marriage, Wife petitioned for dissolution of marriage. At that time, the couple's net worth was $4, 806, 524. This property dispute results from the trial court's equitable distribution following the Hookers' dissolution of marriage. Two pieces of residential real property are relevant to this case: Hickstead and Lake George. At trial, Wife argued and presented evidence that Husband had donative intent with respect to Hickstead and Lake George and, therefore, these properties were marital assets as a result of interspousal gift. Husband disagreed, arguing that neither Hickstead nor Lake George was a marital asset and he never had the donative intent for either property to become a marital asset. Also relevant is Hooker Hollow, LLC, which was a company that Husband formed during the marriage.

          The first property, referred to as "Hickstead, " is located in Wellington, Florida.[4] Husband purchased Hickstead in 1989 after Wife's father recommended the property as a beneficial investment. Husband's father also paid $25, 000 for a lottery ticket, which provided Husband the opportunity to purchase Hickstead. Hooker, 174 So.3d at 512. The Hickstead deed listed "Alice I. Hooker Trust FBO [("the AIH Trust")], for the benefit of, Timothy I. Hooker" as the grantee.

         When Husband purchased Hickstead in 1989, it was vacant land. At the time of the dissolution of marriage over two decades later, Hickstead "was a working horse farm with 16 stalls and all the tack rooms and feed rooms that went with it, a jump field, a rod and ring, paddocks. . . . [O]ne wing upstairs had [the marital] home that the children [and the parties] lived in and the other wing was the staff apartment."[5]

         The second property, referred to as "Lake George, " is located in Lake George, New York. Husband purchased Lake George in October 1997 for approximately $490, 000. Like Hickstead, Lake George was titled in only Husband's name. This property was "purchased, built and maintained as a summer residence for the family" where they "continue[d] to pursue and enjoy their horse activities during that season while residing together as a family in New York." The trial court explained that Husband paid the expenses for Lake George with his independent funds. Wife was never "a signatory on th[e] account nor [did] she ever ha[ve] access to the account" that Husband used for Lake George expenses. In April 2012, the fair market value of Lake George was approximately $2.5 million.

         The trial court held a three-day trial during which both parties presented extensive evidence, including testimony from both Husband and Wife and other witnesses, such as accounting experts. In the trial court's Final Judgment, it found, in pertinent part:

Hickstead [and Lake George] were more than . . . mere line item assets in the name of the Husband during their marriage. [They] were and should be considered joint marital assets of the Husband and Wife in equitable distribution by this Court, the way they were considered joint marital assets by the parties as they lived and raised a family in these "assets." While there was testimony from the Husband that he paid for these properties, the Husband also testified that he did not tell the Wife "one way or the other" whether she owned these marital residences. The facts are that the Husband and Wife treated their residential properties as marital assets. The Court finds that the conduct of the parties, including the conduct of the Husband, gives rise to the presumption that the parties intended to hold these residences as marital assets.
The Court finds that based upon the evidence and conduct of the Husband, Wife and family during the marriage that Hickstead [and Lake George] are interspousal gifts from the Husband to the Wife.

(Emphasis added.)

         Husband sought rehearing on the trial court's Final Judgment, "primarily challenging the trial court's determinations as to the interspousal gift to the Wife of an interest in [Hickstead] and Lake George." Hooker, 174 So.3d at 511. As the Fourth District explained, in its Amended Final Judgment, the trial court:

maintained its finding that, although the [Hickstead] and Lake George properties were purchased with the Husband's non-marital assets and were titled in his name alone, they should be considered marital assets because the Husband made an interspousal gift of an interest to the Wife, with their actions showing joint ownership. However, based on the rehearing, the trial court determined that an unequal distribution was warranted because of the substantial financial contribution of the Husband. Therefore, the court awarded 66% interest in the [Hickstead] property to the Husband and the remaining 34% to the Wife, and awarded 75% interest in the Lake George property to the Husband and the remaining 25% to the Wife.


         Further supporting its conclusion that these properties were marital assets, the trial court recognized that Husband owned other pieces of real property that he treated differently than Hickstead and Lake George, or less like interspousal gifts. Specifically, the trial court stated, "In contrast to the evidence presented at the Final Hearing regarding the way the Husband exclusively handled his other real property, assets and investments, [Hickstead and Lake George] were treated as the joint family property of the Wife." Thus, the trial court concluded that Husband's actions substantiated donative intent with respect to Hickstead and Lake George.

          Husband appealed the trial court's Amended Final Judgment to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Upon review, the Fourth District stated that it accepted the trial court's factual determinations absent "an abuse of discretion" and reviewed the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. Id. (citations omitted). The Fourth District affirmed the trial court's determination as to Lake George but concluded that "the trial court erred in finding that the Wife had an interest in the [Hickstead] property by virtue of an interspousal gift." Id. at 513. As to Hickstead, the Fourth District stated:

Under the preponderance of the credible evidence standard for finding donative intent, the facts found by the trial court do not evidence a clear donative intent by the Husband. . . . Rather, the facts regarding the Wife's involvement with [Hickstead] simply evidence that the Wife took care of her residence, regardless of ownership.

Id. (emphasis added).

         Turning to the trial court's equitable distribution schedule, pursuant to section 61.075(1), Florida Statutes, the Fourth District reviewed whether there was competent, substantial evidence supporting the trial court's equitable distribution. Id. at 515. The Fourth District concluded that such evidence existed and the trial court's findings conformed to the statutory factors and affirmed the trial court's findings in its Amended Final Judgment, except the determination that Hickstead was an interspousal gift and, therefore, a marital asset. Id. at 515-16 (citing ยง 61.075, Fla. Stat. (2010)). Because it found that Hickstead ...

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