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In re Marriage of Miller

August 13, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 97-D-1308 Honorable Ellar Duff, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


This is a case where a financially successful orthopedic surgeon stopped practicing medicine and borrowed money to maintain his family's lifestyle during costly divorce proceedings that plodded on for more than four years. The marital estate withered to a shadow of its one-time worth before the trial judge could divide marital assets. When it came time to divide the estate, the judge blamed the doctor for all of the losses incurred during the eternity taken to dissolve this marriage.

She found that he had squandered more than $2.235 million. A host of dissipation findings treated the doctor to a share of the marital estate that had less value than the marital debt that he was ordered to assume. His erstwhile spouse parted the marriage with approximately $1.6 million in unencumbered marital assets.

We are asked to undo the disparity in the distribution of the marital estate, a request that turns upon whether the trial judge abused her discretion in reaching the various findings that Dr. Miller had frittered away most of the estate on things that benefited him.

We do not overturn a determination that a spouse has dissipated assets, and therefore deserves to be charged with losses that occur on the road to a marriage's end, unless the trial judge's findings exceed the bounds of reason and ignore principles of law designed to ensure fair and just results. In re Marriage of Partyka, 158 Ill. App. 3d 545, 550, 511 N.E.2d 676, 680 (1987).

For the reasons that follow, we think that many of the dissipation findings made in this case transcend reason and require the reevaluation of the asset-and-liability distribution between the parties. We reverse and remand to start anew in arriving at a fair division of the marital estate. Because the division of marital assets and liabilities is an integral part of the decision-making on an award of maintenance, we also vacate the permanent maintenance award entered in this case.

Margaret Lynn Miller and Maurice Miller wed on January 21, 1981. The marriage was blessed with three boys: Jonathon, Clifford, and Stuart. Jonathon currently attends Purdue University. The other two sons live with their father, who was awarded custody. They will soon enter college, an expense their father must bear, along with the educational expenses of Jonathon.

Margaret used to work as a registered nurse. She quit working shortly after the wedding to become a homemaker. The divorce proceedings depressed Margaret, and she exacerbated her problems with alcohol consumption. She was hospitalized for alcohol-induced Tylenol toxicity and hepatic failure during the divorce's course. She incurred hefty medical and insurance expenses that had to be paid during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. By the divorce's conclusion, Margaret had maintained two years of sobriety through vigilant participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. She remains under the treatment of numerous physicians, including a psychiatrist who testified on her behalf. He gave his diagnosis that she suffers from major depressive disorder, panic attacks, alcohol dependence, and opiate medication abuse. He further testified that she will never return to nursing absent great improvement. However, he did not rule out that possibility.

Maurice grew a successful medical practice during the marriage. As these proceedings loomed, he earned medical fees of almost $600,000 annually. He was actively engaged in that practice, paying four full-time employees, when the petition for the dissolution of the marriage was filed on October 27, 1997. The action proceeded at an incredibly slow pace. The parties had already endured 1½ years of torment attendant to divorce when, in May 1999, Maurice quit practicing medicine, other than continuing to care for several patients who were in the final stage of treatment. Maurice maintained all four employees full-time with benefits for almost a year as the practice wound down. After a year, all but one employee was terminated, and that remaining employee worked part-time. It cost approximately $103,000 to keep these employees working and covered by workers' compensation benefits. Maurice may have wanted to keep his practice together until the divorce was over, with plans to return to work at that time. However, any such plan was thwarted by the incalculable pace of these proceedings. It took 2½ years from the shutdown of his practice to bring this matter to a conclusion.

The trial judge concluded that all the money spent on winding down his practice and closing shop dissipated the marital estate.

Maurice testified that he did not quit a lucrative profession to visit financial harm upon himself and his estranged wife. His overriding concern dealt with the fact that his medical practice left little time for other duties and enterprises. He explained that the three boys, who were then all living with him, were traumatized by the lengthy divorce. He felt that they were in need of more paternal support than he could give when practicing medicine. In addition, he began to realize that the protracted stress of these proceedings over time was harming his clinical judgments and patient care. His employees testified to corroborate this explanation for ceasing the practice of medicine. They told of how Margaret would repeatedly call the office and interrupt work. They observed Maurice's behavior after such calls. His skin complexion would flush and his demeanor would turn dark and sullen. He would cease what he was doing, retire to his office, and silently stare at the walls. Maurice, who is a private pilot, stopped operating his airplane and grounded himself because of the mental uneasiness he felt from the stress of the divorce proceedings. Maurice also testified that he was working on a medical text on osteoporosis and that the duties of a full-time practice were inconsistent with the time necessary to author this text.

Lastly, there was one other reason Maurice tendered to explain why his decision to cease practice was well-motivated. He was absorbed in day-trading stock. The Schwab account that served as the vehicle that he employed to engage in this enterprise proved to be the single largest asset in the marital estate. Its value at the time that the marital assets were distributed was $1,231,793. It was awarded in its entirety to Margaret.

Maurice was either very good at trading stock or very lucky at it. We assume that the success involved favorable market conditions, coupled with study and skill. In 1994, there was $118,626 in the Schwab investment account. By year's end in 1996, the account's balance was $841,083. The year 1997 was the year in which marital discord surfaced. It culminated in the October initiation of divorce proceedings. Maurice wrote two checks out of the account that year that totaled $247,283.63. One of the checks, $156,642, helped to purchase Margaret a new residence after the separation. Despite this large withdrawal from the account, its value at the end of 1997 was $942,750. While the divorce lingered on in 1998, Maurice's day-trading grew the account to a balance of $2,660,119. Maurice quit his practice in May of 1999 at a time when he was experiencing a financial success in the stock market that dwarfed what he could earn toiling at ...

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