Reeves v. Reeves

Reeves v. Reeves, 226 Mich App 490 (1997) brought a radical change to the landscape of domestic litigations by suggesting that the wheel be re-invented in every property division in the jurisdiction. Prior to Reeves it was ordinary thought that Michigan was an "equitable distribution" state with all assets owned by the parties being "subject to distribution", see e.g. Bywater v. Bywater, 128 Mich App 396 (1983); Feldman v. Feldman, 55 Mich App 147 (1974), consistent with ordinary notions of equity. These notions are generally outlined in Johnson v. Johnson, 346 Mich 418 (1966) and Sparks v. Sparks, 140 Mich 141 (1992). Reeves, misreading both the statutes, the legislative intent and the history of the jurisdiction, determined Michigan was some variation on a "community property" state and demanded that all assets be assigned "marital" or "non-marital" status with the supposed "non-marital" assets only being divisible if the non-holding party contributed to the "acquisition, accumulation or improvement" of the asset or the estate was "otherwise insufficient" to justify invasion. Judge Janet Neff, in a fine dissenting opinion, demonstrates how off the wall the majority is. 

But Judge Neff’s opinion is not as devastating as John Schaefer’s article in the Michigan Bar Journal in February of 2000, "The Uncertain State of Michigan Equitable Distribution Law Post-Reeves", 79 MBJ 168 (2000). The Schaefer article demonstrates that Reeves has no clothes. A less elegant writing to this end is found in Kushigian v. Kushigian, Case No 91-43907-DM (Ross, Arbitrator), a Washtenaw County arbitration that makes a comprehensive analysis of Michigan statutory law.

Recent appellate cases have begun to pound at the frailty of the Reeves analysis. Most notably see the unpublished opinion of Skinner v. Skinner, Case No 216404 (12/15/2000). In a footnote (# 3) Judge Helene White writes that "We caution the trial court against too rigid an application of the Reeves decision. The admonition in Reeves that property should be divided into separate and marital property cannot be elevated above our Supreme Court’s directive in Sparks…that the contribution of the parties to their total assets is but one of many factors to consider in determining an equitable distribution of the marital estate. 

We emphasize that that the underlying concern when apportioning property in a divorce action must be to achieve an equitable distribution of the property." (Emphasis added) This is more than a mere caution against "rigid application". It is a direct confrontation and rejection of Reeves. This is either an equitable distribution state or something else. The Skinner opinion is definitive that when looking to assets it is not an "asset by asset" test, but a general question of whether a spouse contributed to the accumulation of the entire set of properties owned by the parties. This is game, set and match on the issue, since MCL 552.401 allows the inclusion of property in the marital estate when there has been such a contribution. 

Either we (a) look to every fork, spoon and television owned by the parties to see if there has been a "contribution" by a spouse to that item or (b) we look to the parties’ assets as a while to envision such a contribution. Once (b) is the case, as Skinner and the vast history of the state’s jurisprudence would suggest, MCL 552.401 allows the distribution of any item, so long as that distribution is "fair". This is not, incidentally, the sole predicate of the Reeves error. There are two other statutes at odds with Reeves. See Kushigian and the Schaeffer article. And a lot of case history and commentary.

Some appellate courts are now reciting the Reeves mantra that "when apportioning the marital estate the court must first determine which assets are marital in character and which assets constitute separate property." See e.g. Bodrie v. Bodrie, No. 224637 (May 25, 2001) an unpublished opinion that stresses the burden of establishing assets are "separate" lies with the litigant making the claim