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Stepchild treatment a factor in property split

Divorce lawyers know the “wicked stepparent” is not just an archetype from a fairy tale. When parents marry or remarry, the transition to a “blended” family may not be smooth.

But lawyers may not have known that when a blended family comes apart, a divorce court can hold a stepparent accountable for poor treatment of a stepchild in its division of marital property.

In technical terms, that poor treatment may amount to a “negative nonmonetary contribution” that can be weighed in the property split, the Court of Appeals said today in Crater v. Crater, a case out of Carroll County.

When Johnny Leigh Crater married Frances Jean Crater in 1987, Frances had a daughter, Heather, from her previous marriage. After Heather, at age 7, pinched her stepfather, he essentially had nothing more to do with her. He and Frances operated a dairy farm, and both parents continued to provide food, shelter and clothing for Heather until she left for college. But the stepfather told his wife early in the marriage that he did not like children. He never visited Heather in college, nor did he attend her graduation.

While still at home, Heather did not participate in sports and extra-curricular activities in the evenings after school because her mother did the evening milking and the husband refused to be a “taxi driver.”

When Heather came home from college to visit, the husband would move out of the marital home to a garage, three miles away. The mother wanted to keep her telephone ringer on at night in case Heather – whose college was three hours away – had an emergency. But the husband demanded it be turned off and told the mother the police would let her know if something bad happened. The wife kept the ringer on and the husband moved to the garage, living there for nearly two years.

After the husband moved to the garage, the couple communicated primarily through notes, about the dairy operation. The wife testified that the husband was “the king of silent treatment,” able to go a month or longer without speaking to her.

The daughter graduated from college and moved to Germany, where the mother planned to visit. The husband became upset, and the wife realized he would not change and she left the farm.

When the couple divorced, Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Brett L. Geisler granted the wife 55 percent of the marital property. The Court of Appeals rejected the husband’s appeal of the property split in its unanimous unpublished opinion.

“Husband provided mere basic financial support for Heather but treated Heather poorly. Husband’s negative relationship with Heather and wife was a negative non-monetary contribution to the well-being of the family,” wrote Judge Robert P. Frank.

Both parties worked hard in the dairy business, but Geisler said the wife “was a devoted wife, mother and economic partner with husband and that she put 110 percent into the relationship,” Frank wrote. The record fully supported the court’s findings about the husband’s “strained relationship” with the stepdaughter and his wife, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in making the monetary award, according to Frank.
–Deborah Elkins

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