Article by By TINA BAY, Metropolitan News
A husband did not have to reimburse his wife for community funds he used to care for his ailing mother, the Third District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Reversing a ruling by Placer Superior Court Commissioner Colleen M. Nichols, the justices concluded a spouse’s duty to support a needy parent is a community obligation.
Justice Vance W. Raye, writing for the Court of Appeal, explained that adult children are obligated by state law to care for their parents, much as parents are obligated to care for their minor children.
The justice cited Family Code Sec. 4400, which imposes a support obligation with respect to a parent who is in need and unable to maintain himself or herself by work, and Penal Code Sec. 270c, under which adult children may be guilty of a misdemeanor for failing to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical attendance for an indigent parent.
An obligation imposed by statute is a “debt” for which the community estate is liable if it was incurred by either spouse before or during marriage, Raye said. Spending community funds to satisfy the obligation thus does not constitute an unauthorized gift requiring reimbursement, he wrote.
Nichols had told the husband’s counsel, “You know as well as I do that you’re under no obligation to pay for your parent’s expenses just as you’re under no legal obligation to pay for your child’s expenses once they are over the age of eighteen.”
The commissioner accordingly ordered Charles A. Leni to make an equalizing payment of $12,000 to his ex-wife, Constance P. Leni, for spending a portion of proceeds from the sale of the marital residence to care for his mother.
The Lenis wed in 1977 and eventually divorced in 2003. The wife’s first petition for divorce, filed in 1985 after the parties initially separated, was dismissed when they reconciled.
Escrow instructions pertaining to the sale of their home during their period of separation were never amended, however. The instructions provided for “proceeds to be split 50/50” and as a result, each party received an equal share of sale proceeds following their reconciliation.
At trial, the husband asserted that the escrow instructions were sufficient to transmute the proceeds of the sale from community property to separate property, which he was then free to use to help his mother. Both the commissioner and the Court of Appeal rejected that argument.
The “50/50” notation did not satisfy the rigid statutory requirement for an express declaration that the property’s character is being changed, Raye wrote, noting that the parties reconciled and the divorce was dismissed by the time escrow closed.
Instructions notwithstanding, the husband could use community funds to fulfill statutory obligations to his mother, the justice said.
On remand, he wrote, the husband was entitled to establish that he used the funds at issue to support his mother.
Justices George Nicholson and Ronald B. Robie concurred in the opinion.
The case is Marriage of Leni, 06 S.O.S. 5543.