Spousal Support Order Reversed on Appeal for Lack of Explicit Findings

Timothy Kowal, Esq.
  •  
January 6, 2021

In this dissolution proceeding in Nevai v. Klemunes (In re Marriage of Nevai) (D3 Dec. 29, 2020) No. C086584, wife, who had quit her engineering career to raise the couple's child, asked for monthly permanent support of $10,000 from husband, who earned between $16,000 and $18,000 per month. Wife also asked that husband be ordered to pay both side's attorney fees. The trial court awarded her only $3,584 per month, based on a computer-generated report, and denied her fees.

Wife appealed, arguing the trial court's rulings were not supported by express findings on the factors required under Family Code sections 2030, 2032, and 4320.

Ordinarily, a losing party must follow a rigorous process of requesting findings and objecting to missing or insufficient findings. Wife did not follow that procedure here. No party requested a statement of decision. And as husband correctly argued on appeal, in the absence of a statement of decision, under the implied-findings doctrine the reviewing court presumes the trial court followed the law, weighed the required factors, and made all findings necessary to support the judgment.

And these implied findings concerning support and fee orders will be upheld unless the reviewing court finds the trial court abused its broad discretion.

The Third District declined to follow these presumptions, however, and held the trial court abused its discretion by following a computer-generated model rather than exercising independent judgment. Following In re Marriage of Schulze (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 519, 525, even starting with a computer-generated figure "and then mak[ing] adjustments" falls short of the required independent findings required by section 4320, because "the ultimate order is not really the product of a truly independent exercise of judicial discretion." (Schulze, at pp. 526-527.)

Indeed, the permanent award was only $89 different from the computer-generated temporary order, leading the Court to conclude it could not indulge the fictional inference that the trial court made the independent findings required of it.

The Court held the same regarding the trial court's order denying wife's request for attorney fees under Family Code section 2030. Section 2030 requires explicit findings, which also were not forthcoming here. And the Court again declined to indulge the presumption they had been impliedly made, given the trial court's "equivocal" "mus[ing]" that wife "might prevail in a [section] 2030 argument," but that she "certainly would not prevail under a [section] 271 argument," which left unanswered "whether the court granted or denied wife's request for need-based fees, let alone whether and how it weighed the three required findings regarding reasonableness, disparity in access to funds, and husband's ability to pay for legal representation for both parties."

The upshot: While the statement of decision is normally requested by the losing party, the prevailing party also should consider requesting a statement of decision when necessary findings are missing.

Tim Kowal helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com, and publishes a newsletter of appellate tips for trial attorneys at www.tvalaw.com/articles. Contact Tim at tkowal@tvalaw.com or (714) 641-1232.