Heard December 10, 2014
Appeal From Pickens County. Alex Kinlaw, Jr., Family Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2013-001259.
Sarah Ganss Drawdy, of Byrholdt Drawdy, LLC, of Anderson, for Appellant.
Robert Scott Dover, of Law Offices of Scott Dover, of Pickens, for Respondent.
Kelvin R. Kearse, of Easley, Guardian ad Litem.
WILLIAMS, J. GEATHERS and McDONALD, JJ., concur.
[412 S.C. 229] WILLIAMS, J.:
George Brown (Husband) appeals the family court's final divorce decree, arguing the family court improperly (1) divided the marital estate given the short duration of Husband and Julie Brown's (Wife) marriage, (2) awarded custody of the parties' minor children to Wife, and (3) ordered Husband to pay a portion of Wife's attorney's fees and guardian ad litem (GAL) fees. We affirm.
Husband and Wife married on January 1, 2003. The majority of Husband and Wife's eight-year marriage was one of long distance. The day after the parties were married, Husband left for military training in California. Soon after the parties married, Wife became pregnant with triplets. In the four months prior to the triplets' birth, Wife was placed on complete bed rest by her treating physicians. Husband did not visit Wife while she was on bed rest because he was stationed in California.
Toward the end of Wife's bed rest, she unexpectedly went into preterm labor. Husband immediately flew across the country and arrived the morning after the triplets were born. He remained home for twelve days before returning to California. Because the triplets were born unexpectedly--and, thus, were significantly premature--they were hospitalized for fifty-two days after their birth. Other than the twelve days following their birth, Husband was unable to visit the triplets while they were hospitalized and was not present when the triplets were discharged from the hospital.
Wife was again bedridden from September 2004 to February 2005 following complications from surgery. During this time, Husband only returned home for several days around Christmas. Prior to the triplets' first birthday, Wife and the children drove across the country and relocated to California to be with Husband for approximately nine months. Thereafter, Wife and the triplets returned to Clemson, South Carolina. [412 S.C. 230] Husband then went to Texas and Arizona for additional military training while Wife and their children remained in South Carolina.
Husband was deployed with the U.S. military from October 13, 2006, until June 24, 2007. While deployed, Husband was notified by the American Red Cross that Wife had gone into early labor. Husband was able to return home from overseas on December 30, 2006, the day prior to the child's birth. Husband stayed with Wife and the children for six days before he had to return for his deployment in the Middle East.
Husband returned to South Carolina from his military deployment on June 30, 2007. He then left the country on July 5, 2007, to
work as an independent government contractor in the Middle East. Husband ended his employment as a government contractor in the Middle East and returned home on December 22, 2010. The parties resided together in Clemson until Husband left on January 10, 2011, to take a job as a government contractor in Charlottesville, Virginia, approximately four hundred miles away. Husband's job in Charlottesville provided health insurance for Wife and their children. After Husband moved to Charlottesville, Wife filed for divorce on February 7, 2011. Upon Wife's filing for divorce, Husband relocated to Augusta, Georgia, and began working with a Virginia-based technology firm.
In Wife's complaint, she requested--among other relief--custody of the parties' children, temporary alimony, child support, equitable division of the marital estate, the appointment of a GAL, the issuance of restraining orders, and attorney's fees. Wife alleged that, in the four-year period from the birth of their fourth child until she filed for divorce, Husband only lived in the marital home for ninety-four days, which eventually caused the break-up of their marriage.
Husband answered and counterclaimed, seeking custody of the children, an order barring Wife from receiving alimony, equitable division of the marital assets and debts, and attorney's fees. While Husband acknowledged his military deployment and subsequent overseas employment as a government contractor contributed to the break-up of their marriage, he stated Wife's mismanagement of their finances and alleged adultery also contributed to the failure of their marriage.
[412 S.C. 231] The family court issued a temporary order on April 26, 2011, in which the court addressed several issues raised by the parties. In ordering joint custody, the family court stated Wife would be the primary custodian. The family court granted Wife four nights per week and Husband three nights per week in overnight visitation with the children. While in Husband's care, the family court designated Husband's mother (Grandmother) as the children's primary care provider. Because Husband commuted from Augusta to Clemson, Grandmother would care for the children until Husband arrived.
Regarding the parties' assets, the family court determined they had a joint checking account that contained approximately $80,000 prior to the commencement of litigation. The family court concluded Wife had already withdrawn $30,000 from this account. The court ordered Husband to retain the remaining $50,000 and for each party to be responsible for the preservation of the funds in his or her possession pending the outcome of the litigation.
The court also appointed a GAL to represent the interests of the minor children. Within one month of the temporary order, the GAL requested a hearing based on the GAL's concern with the escalating tension between the parties and its effect on the children. As a result of this hearing, the family court issued an order on July 19, 2011, and found Wife would retain primary custody of the children. Pursuant to the order, Husband's visitation was adjusted to accommodate the changing nature of his work schedule, and the parties were ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation.
In January 2012, Grandmother--who provided a substantial amount of care for the parties' children while in Husband's care-- temporarily moved away from South Carolina to care for her daughter. Because Grandmother could no longer be children's primary caretaker while in Husband's custody, the parties began paying for children to have afterschool care in Clemson. At the end of that summer, Wife relocated the children to a new elementary school outside Clemson in which she worked as a special needs teacher. As a benefit of her employment, the elementary school provided afterschool child care to the children at no cost to Wife. In response to Wife's [412 S.C. 232] decision to enroll the children at a new school, Husband moved for an expedited temporary relief hearing. Husband requested the family court change the custodial arrangement or require Wife to transfer the children back to their former elementary school. The family court denied Husband's motion.
The family court held a final hearing in February 2013. By the final hearing, Wife
was employed full-time and earned $3,685 per month as a special needs teacher in Seneca, South Carolina. Husband earned $5,833 per month working in Augusta, Georgia, as an intelligence professional with a Virginia-based technology firm. At the final hearing, Husband and Wife submitted evidence and testimony to substantiate their claims to the family court.
During Husband's testimony, he explained why he was best suited to be the children's primary caretaker. Although Husband acknowledged he was frequently not present, he testified he had been very involved in the children's lives since he moved back from Virginia. Although Husband lived in Aiken and worked in Augusta, Husband testified he commuted weekly to spend time with their children. When in Clemson, Husband testified he was active in the children's education and routinely assisted the children with their homework. When the children were at their former elementary school, Husband stated he was a volunteer and chaperoned field trips. Husband adamantly opposed Wife's decision to change the children's schools, stating all of their friends and his extended family resided in the Clemson area, and their attendance at the new school in Seneca prevented him from volunteering or chaperoning their field trips.
When questioned about their marriage, Husband stated he did not initially want to get a divorce and tried talking to Wife to change her mind. Once they separated, Husband believed Wife was shirking her responsibilities and acting immaturely. Husband also believed Wife committed adultery during their marriage--while he was overseas--and testified that Wife's financial mismanagement of their money contributed to the break-up of their marriage.
In support of his claim that Wife managed the parties' money carelessly, Husband stated that while he was overseas, [412 S.C. 233] his salary was deposited into a joint checking account to which Wife had full access. Husband claimed Wife spent his earnings frivolously and stated he only spent approximately $16,000 of the $600,000 he earned between 2008 and 2010. According to Husband, Wife greatly depleted their liquid assets because of her spending issues and diminished the value of their home by allowing it to fall ...