This decision issued on a non-precedential basis on April 13, 2021, represents every divorce litigator’s nightmare. Unfortunately, the decision on appeal to remand the case offers the litigants a chance to relive what happened in the 1993 Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day”.
The Laights were married forever before they separated. For much of their marriage Mrs. Laight worked at the local bank as a teller where she would study coin deposits made by customers and set aside the coins minted before 1965. Pre 1965 coins other than pennies were 90% silver back then and have value based upon their weight and silver content.
So when the Laights split up they started down the master’s road toward an equitable distribution. Mr. Laight tells his lawyer about the coins. The typical questions are asked and the answers coming back from Mrs. Laight are quite concerning for their inconsistency. There weren’t any coins kept on top of the hutch in the dining room and if there ever were any coins, they were given at unspecified times to their two adult daughters.
We have all been there. Typically it is money in a safe or a safe deposit box. In this case, Mr. Laight offers testimony that he believes the coins had a value of $50-60,000, but no one has seen the coins of “Laight.” Mrs. Laight comes back with an estimate that the nonexistent and/or gifted coins have a face value of $2,000. The testimony then drifts toward what the daughters might have gotten and what became of any “missing” coins. As far as this writer can see, no one joined the daughters as parties nor was their testimony concerning these assets ever taken.
Needless to say, the master is in a bind. He punts, issuing a recommendation that “both daughters return all of the coins to husband’s counsel in fourteen days.” The next recommendation is that the other marital assets be distributed 55% to wife and 45% to husband except for the unspecified coin collection, which is awarded 65% to husband and 35% to wife because of her “breach of fiduciary duty” and her lack of credibility.
Husband filed exceptions complaining the estate should be equally divided and that wife’s duplicity should result in his retention to all of the marital coins. The trial court granted both exceptions and accepted husband’s testimony that they were worth $60,000. No appeal was taken from that order although nowhere in the opinion is there a reference to that procedural formality called a “final divorce decree.”
Either nine or fifteen months later (even the Superior Court can’t decipher the dockets) husband filed a petition for special relief asserting you know what. Wife didn’t provide all the coins and the ones he got were worth only $13,000, which is $47,000 less than what the trial court found them to be.
At this point, the trial court expressed its frustration by denying the petition instantly. The court found that husband had offered no allegation that wife’s actions “prevented him from receiving the full value of the coins.” Rather, the court found, without a hearing, that the coins were provided. If husband was unhappy with the coin collection wife produced he needed to preserve a record by forcing wife to produce more coins (???) or otherwise secure a continuance of the trial (???). But, hadn’t the trial ended when the master produced his recommendation? Further, hadn’t the court order disposing of the exceptions and adopting husband’s value of $60,000 been the finale of this controversy? The Trial Court’s opinion even says it awarded him the full value he placed on the coins and gave him 100% of the collection.
Husband appealed from the denial of his special relief petition. Again, the appellate opinion makes no reference to when a divorce decree was issued but one has to assume that husband’s petition was actually one to “enforce” the order disposing of the master’s recommendation. On appeal husband accurately recounts that the court found the coins were worth $60,000 and this was awarded to him.
The appellate decision issued this week informs us that wife did not refute the allegation that she shorted him on the coin collection. These facts must have been gleaned from her brief as there is no evidence she ever was required to answer the petition. Rather she says husband did not meet his burden of proof. That’s probably true because the trial court dismissed the husband’s petition the day he filed it. She also musters the chutzpah to argue that husband should have secured the coins she said did not exist and had them valued before the master’s hearing.
Messy enough? Well, the Superior Court vacated the order dismissing husband’s petition and remanded the case for a hearing where husband can show that wife failed to present the full coin collection. Now, this hearing is probably not going to go well for either side. Husband will do the same whining he did at the settlement conference three months before the equitable distribution hearing. His wife is “hiding” a large portion of the coins that did not exist or were given away. Wife, will rebut this when she has already been found guilty of such chicanery as to lose any interest in the coins? The parties separated in 2012 and this writer suspects that the coins may have taken flight about that time. So the Common Pleas Court will have to trace their travels over nine years, assuming they existed in the first place.
In the 1993 flick “Groundhog Day” the weatherman Phil offers this advice, “There is no way that this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
Ironically, in the Laight case, the groundhog was stopped. He was valued at $60,000 in a final order and he was awarded to husband. It is not clear when the $13,000 in coins were delivered to husband’s attorney (thus making him a witness). But, no one needed to go there. The order said the coins were worth $60,000 and belonged to the “Mister.” If the “Missus” didn’t like that order her appeal was over after 30 days assuming someone entered a divorce decree. In this case the trial court should have directed a judgment for $60,000 per its earlier finding and told wife that she could have a hearing to show the value of coins that she had tendered as an offset. Game over. Groundhog vanquished. Alas, another hearing lets the groundhog survive to live other days.
N.B. The Wall Street. Journal publishes silver prices on a daily basis including the trade value of $1,000 of pre 1965 silver coins. When the parties separated, silver was trading at $30-35 an ounce. For most of the history of the Laight case prices bounce between $15 and 20. Today $25/oz. and $1,000 worth of coin trades at about 18x the face value.
Laight v. Laight, 550 WDA 2020; Non-Precedential Decision entered April 13, 2021