By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions many have about divorce is that once the decree has been signed by the judge, it’s final.
Every once in a while, however, the ramifications of a divorce decree, such as ongoing conflicts over property division or child custody, end up in the appellate courts. The Hawaii State Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a Big Island divorce case, Colleen P. Collins vs. John A. Wassell. The divorce was granted, but Collins appealed the property division in the case to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, arguing she was entitled to compensation for her contributions while the couple cohabitated prior to their legal marriage.
Wassell countered that he and Collins agreed that they would each maintain separate financial identities until the time of their legal marriage. The family court agreed and determined that Collins and Wassell did not form a premarital economic partnership.
The appellate court, in a split opinion, affirmed the divorce decree and Collins took her battle to the state’s highest court.
Oral arguments were heard Tuesday in the case at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center as part of the state Judiciary’s Courts in the Community outreach program. About 300 people, including high school and UH-Hilo students — and a plethora of lawyers — were in the audience, enjoying the theater’s padded seats as opposed to the hardwood benches of courtroom galleries.
Collins’ attorney, Joy San Buenaventura, argued the appellate court didn’t consider Collins’ premarital contributions to the partnership, such as paying off the remaining mortgage on Wassell’s Hawaiian Paradise Park home while he stayed there rent-free, which Collins maintains allowed Wassell to accrue greater financial worth while the couple was together, while Collins’ own wealth didn’t appreciate as much.
Wassell’s attorney, Andrew Iwashita, said Collins and Wassell applied for a marriage license in 2000, held a wedding ceremony, received gifts, including money that went into the couple’s joint checking account, but didn’t file the license. The couple didn’t legally marry until 2005, after both of Collins’ daughters completed college degrees on the mainland. The reason, he told the court, was so Collins could receive more financial aid for her daughters to help pay off a $178,000 tuition bill. Collins’ concern was that if she were legally married, Wassell’s income would also have to be considered on any financial aid application although he isn’t the father of either child.
Collins filed for divorce in 2007.
The five Supreme Court justices asked numerous questions, often interrupting the lawyers mid-sentence. After arguments were heard, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald announced the court would take the arguments under advisement and issue its ruling at a later date.
Both attorneys said afterward they’ve previously argued before the state’s high court, but not before such a large audience.
Iwashita said “being in front of all the students got the adrenaline going.”
“Basically, I got about two minutes out before they (the justices) decided they were going to ask questions,” he said. “That’s expected; that’s how it always goes. The preparation is really in making sure you know enough and you have all your bases covered, so when they start asking questions, you know how to respond.”
San Buenaventura said the case could break legal ground in today’s expanded marital environment.
“There are same-sex marriage ramifications,” she said. “Most same-sex couples have cohabitated and shared financial resources. And as of (Monday), they can get married. And the question is whether those premarital contributions count. And that’s why this is an important case.”
Recktenwald said the high court generally hears oral arguments in “maybe three or four” divorce appeals a year.
“Divorce and issues of property division affect many people in a given year across the state, so it’s an area where cases come up and these are important cases for the court to address,” he said.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.