ALIMONY –- STATUTORY-FACTORS-EXPLANATION REQUIREMENT –- ALIMONY PRESUMPTION –- ROLE OF FAULT. Pilati v. Pilati, 59 Va. App. 176, 717 S.E.2d 807 (12/6/11), is another simple and straightforward Court of Appeals opinion, but it explains a great deal about the Court’s current thinking on the spousal support statute’s specific-explanation requirements and how the Court intends to apply them. It was a case that reverses one of these judgments for insufficient information, but not without explaining in detail what it does want. Thus it should be very useful to trial judges and the Virginia lawyers who try these cases – and/or appeal them. It emphatically declares, for what that’s worth, that the Court of Appeals will no longer tolerate a sloppy or casual kiss-off of these requirements. The Court of Appeals reaffirms and perhaps refines its continuing belief in Virginia’s common-law alimony presumption (ever beloved of the appellate courts, except when they say it isn’t), and the respective roles of payor and payee fault in its application. The trial judge doesn’t seem to have done much of a job of addressing these statutory requirements, even after both sides offered written proffers of fact on each of them, and after the judge announced his decision, counsel called him on that. The trial judge then called for written briefs on the factors, and got them, with proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, and then issued a letter opinion more or less quoting the statute’s factor list, including two fact findings: that the marriage was 22 years and the standard of living had been “high middle class.” This Record didn’t make Judge Kelsey very happy, and his opinion patiently explained what the statute requires. Courts have a duty to explain their reasoning in detail only when there is a statutory requirement for it, and nothing says they have to give written findings of fact and conclusions of law or explain their decision’s basis generally.
Nor does a signed written order take any explaining, absent the statute saying otherwise -- and without such requirements an appellate court presumes the trial court followed the governing legal principles, and resolves all factual disputes in the prevailing party’s favor. Now the spousal support statute, when it says a judge has to communicate to the parties, either orally or in writing, the basis for the decision on alimony, calls for more than merely mentioning the predominating reasons for the decision. It requires identifying all relevant statutory factors that support the decision and giving counsel and parties an explanation of its findings on any significant factual disputes, under §20-107.1(F). Judge Kelsey even offers a helpful contrast with the child custody statute, §20-124.3. Communicating the basis for the decision he made requires that the judge orally or in writing give a case-specific explanation, which gets its “contextual meaning” from the evidence that came in, and that explanation has to concern the fundamental, predominating reasons for the decision. Now the judge can satisfy the “written explanation” requirement in alimony cases by written orders, written letter opinions that are part of the Record, or oral rulings from the bench -- if they are recorded in a written transcript -- or for the more daring and reckless would-be appellants, a good old “Statement of Facts.”
And make no mistake: the alimony presumption is alive and well, because, Judge Kelsey explains, when a support claim is made by a party who is blameless for the end of the marriage, the law imposes a duty on the other spouse, as informed by ability to pay and payee needs, to maintain the blameless wife in the station in life to which she had become accustomed.