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Chaney v. Karabaic-Chaney

Court of Appeals of Virginia

January 14, 2020



          Jessica C. Boutwell (CowanGates, on brief), for appellant.

          Aubrey H. Brown, III (Dimitrios E. Karles; Parker, Pollard, Wilton & Peaden, PC, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Judges O'Brien, Russell and Senior Judge Clements Argued at Richmond, Virginia



         Julia L. Karabaic-Chaney ("wife") and Jacob F. Chaney ("husband") married June 16, 2012, and separated May 9, 2017. Wife subsequently filed a complaint for divorce and requested equitable distribution, spousal support, child support, and attorney's fees. Husband's responsive pleading did not include a counterclaim for divorce or allege wife's adultery as an affirmative defense. Because husband did not raise the issue of adultery in his answer, wife filed a motion in limine asking the court to prohibit husband from introducing any evidence of her alleged adultery. The court granted the motion excluding all evidence of wife's adultery "for any purpose at any deposition, hearing[, ] or trial."

         The parties proceeded by de bene esse deposition on the issues of equitable distribution and spousal support. Husband and wife's depositions took place December 5, 2018, and the court heard argument on all issues except child support on December 21, 2018.[1] It received additional testimony from the parties on January 31, 2019. The court subsequently granted wife a divorce based on a one-year separation pursuant to Code § 20-91(A)(9)(a), determined the equitable distribution of property, ordered husband to pay child support, and awarded wife spousal support "in the amount of $45, 000.00 payable over five years in monthly installments of $750 per month" with "[t]he right to receive future spousal support . . . reserved to [wife] upon motion made before the expiration of the five[-]year period."

         On appeal, husband assigns error to the court's spousal support ruling. He contends that the court should have allowed him to introduce evidence of wife's adultery for consideration under Code § 20-107.1(E). He also argues that the evidence was insufficient to warrant spousal support and that the court erred in determining wife's right to request future modification of the award.


         Appellate courts "review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence using an abuse of discretion standard and, on appeal, will not disturb a trial court's decision to [exclude] evidence absent a finding of abuse of that discretion." Harman v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 288 Va. 84, 92 (2014) (quoting John Crane, Inc. v. Jones, 274 Va. 581, 590 (2007)). However, "a trial court 'by definition abuses its discretion when it makes an error of law.'" Shooltz v. Shooltz, 27 Va.App. 264, 271 (1998) (quoting Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 100 (1996)). This appeal initially requires us to review the court's decision to exclude evidence from its consideration of spousal support under Code § 20-107.1(E). To conduct this review, we also must determine whether the court properly interpreted the language of Code § 20-107.1(E) specifying the circumstances and factors courts must consider in awarding spousal support. "[W]e review the trial court's statutory interpretations and legal conclusions de novo." Navas v. Navas, 43 Va.App. 484, 487 (2004) (quoting Sink v. Commonwealth, 28 Va.App. 655, 658 (1998)).

         Code § 20-107.1 authorizes a court to order spousal support after considering numerous requisite factors. See Weizenbaum v. Weizenbaum, 12 Va.App. 899, 903 (1991). See also Ray v. Ray, 4 Va.App. 509, 513 (1987) ("A review of all the factors contained in Code § 20-107.1 is mandatory."). "When a court awards spousal support based upon due consideration of the factors enumerated in Code § 20-107.1, as shown by the evidence, its determination 'will not be disturbed except for a clear abuse of discretion.'" Dodge v. Dodge, 2 Va.App. 238, 246 (1986) (quoting Thomasson v. Thomasson, 225 Va. 394, 398 (1983)).

         "An abuse of discretion . . . exists if the trial court fails to consider the statutory factors required to be part of the decisionmaking process." Congdon v. Congdon, 40 Va.App. 255, 262 (2003). "In determining spousal support, the . . . court must consider all factors contained in Code § 20-107.1; failure to do so constitutes reversible error." Rowe v. Rowe, 24 Va.App. 123, 139 (1997). See also Keyser v. Keyser, 7 Va.App. 405, 414-15 (1988) (reversing denial of spousal support where the court considered only the marriage's short duration and wife's "good . . . financial condition" rather than all factors under Code § 20-107.1(E)).

         Code § 20-107.1(E) provides that "[t]he court, in determining whether to award support and maintenance for a spouse, shall consider the circumstances and factors which contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, specifically including adultery and any other ground for divorce." The statute enumerates thirteen specific factors the court must consider when awarding spousal support. Code § 20-107.1(E)(1)-(13). Code § 20-107.1(E)(13) reiterates the direction that the court consider "other factors, including . . . the circumstances and factors that contributed to the dissolution [of the marriage], specifically including any ground for divorce, as are necessary to consider the equities between the parties."

          Here, wife asserts that the court correctly excluded evidence of her adultery in her spousal support claim because husband did not allege adultery as a ground for divorce or as an affirmative defense. In support of this argument, wife relies on Code § 20-107.1(B). When granting a divorce on adultery grounds, a court cannot award support to the adulterous spouse unless denying support "would constitute a manifest injustice, based upon the respective ...

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