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In re Domestic Partnership of Staveland

Supreme Court of Oregon

December 27, 2019

In the Matter of the Domestic Partnership of Kirsten Kari STAVELAND, Respondent on Review, and Michael Jon FISHER, Petitioner on Review.

          Argued and Submitted September 17, 2019

          On review from the Court of Appeals, (CC 16DR00887) (CA A163944). [*]

          George W. Kelly, Eugene, argued the cause and fled the brief for petitioner on review.

          Robert T. Scherzer, Portland, argued the cause and fled the brief for respondent on review.

          Before Walters, Chief Justice, and Balmer, Nakamoto, Flynn, Duncan, and Nelson, Justices, and Landau, Senior Justice pro tempore. [**]

         Case Summary:

         In this action for dissolution of a nonmarital domestic partnership, the parties dispute whether Staveland was entitled to 50 percent of the appreciated value of the house that the parties resided in together during their partnership. The trial court awarded Staveland 50 percent of the appreciated value of the house, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on that issue. Held: (1) A trial court's determination of nonmarital property depends on the court's determination of the express or implicit intent of the parties; (2) appellate courts should review the trial court's determination of such intent as a question of fact.

         The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed on other grounds. The general judgment of the circuit court is reversed and remanded for recalculation of the division of property; the supplemental judgment is vacated and remanded.

         [366 Or. 50]LANDAU, S.J.

         This case involves the dissolution of a domestic partnership. More specifically, it involves how to distribute the appreciation in the value of a home in which the parties to a domestic partnership lived during their time together. The trial court found that the parties intended to live as a married couple and share in the appreciation of the home. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in coming to that conclusion. Staveland and Fisher, 295 Or.App. 210, 433 P.3d 749 (2018). On review, the parties dispute whether the Court of Appeals applied the correct standard of review and whether that court correctly concluded that the parties should share in the appreciation in the home. We conclude that the Court of Appeals applied an incorrect standard of review, but that it ultimately reached the correct decision. We therefore affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

         The following facts do not appear to be in dispute. Staveland and Fisher met in April 2011. In June of that year, Fisher purchased a house located on Dickinson Street, which the parties refer to as the "Dickinson house." He purchased the house for $467, 500. Staveland did not contribute to the purchase, and Fisher held title to the house in his name only.

         Several weeks later, the parties moved into the Dickinson house. They discussed sharing expenses. Fisher agreed to pay the mortgage, property taxes, and homeowners' insurance, while Staveland agreed to pay for "everything else," including electric, gas, and water expenses, as well as food. The parties also worked to improve the Dickinson house, including painting rooms, tiling and carpeting floors, and removing a wall between rooms. Both parties performed labor. Staveland, for example, painted walls and tiled floors. She also made most of the decisions regarding the selection of furniture, color schemes, and the arrangement of art. But Fisher paid for all of the materials.

         The parties otherwise kept their financial affairs separate. Fisher, for instance, owned a number of investment accounts when they moved in together. Staveland owned a home on Ainsworth Street-known as the "Ainsworth [366 Or. 51] house"-which she had purchased some five years earlier. While she lived with Fisher, she rented out the Ainsworth house and was solely responsible for the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and collection of rent. She likewise was responsible for the upkeep of that property, although, on a few occasions, Fisher helped with some minor repairs.

         An exception was a joint Vanguard investment account. Even then, though, the parties carefully tracked their respective contributions to that account.

         In December 2011, Fisher proposed that the couple get married. Staveland hesitated, because of what she understood from a tax advisor would be negative financial consequences of a marriage. Instead, the parties decided to hold a ceremony that resembled a wedding but did not involve getting legally married. They bought rings. They sent invitations to friends and family for a ceremony that would occur at the Dickinson house, which they referred to as "our house." They exchanged vows before an officiant. They hired a professional photographer and a band. And, after the ceremony, they told at least some of their friends and acquaintances that they were married.

         In March 2014, the parties had a son. Staveland assumed most of the childcare duties. She also paid for direct childcare expenses, such as clothes, diapers, food, and medical care. Fisher sometimes provided childcare and occasionally contributed to childcare expenses, writing a check to Staveland.

         In the fall of 2015, the parties began to discuss separating. Fisher said that, if Staveland was not going to be his partner anymore, she should start paying him rent. Instead, she and their son moved out of the Dickinson house in December 2015.

         Staveland then initiated this action for dissolution of a nonmarital domestic partnership.[1] Among other things, [366 Or. 52] she asserted an interest in one half of the appreciation in value of the Dickinson house during the period that the parties lived together.

         At the beginning of trial, the parties advised the court that they had entered into a stipulation as to the distribution of their assets. Counsel for Staveland explained that, "with the exception of appreciation in the home that the parties lived in for four-and-a-half years [the Dickinson home], * * * each party will receive free and clear of the other party, indemnif[ied] * * * from any liabilities thereon, all property that's presently in their own names respectively." Counsel for Fisher agreed. The trial court then questioned both parties to confirm that they agreed with that stipulation.

         The remaining issues for trial were child custody and parenting time, distribution of a few items of personal property, and the distribution of the appreciation in the value of the Dickinson home.

         On the latter issue, Staveland offered the testimony of an appraiser who testified that the Dickinson house was worth $635, 000 as of October 19, 2016, which was near the date of trial. The appraiser also testified that the house had appreciated 10.3 percent in the preceding year and that, when Staveland had moved out some ten months earlier, the house might have been worth between $584, 000 and $585, 000.

         The trial court awarded custody of the parties' son to Staveland and provided parenting time for Fisher. It also distributed the few items of personal property that the parties had disputed. As to the Dickinson house, the trial court began by noting that the relevant legal analysis was set out in Beat v. Beat,282 Or. 115, 577 P.2d 507 (1978), in which this court had explained that the ...

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