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Wu-Carter v. Carter

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

March 14, 2018

Simeng Wu-Carter
Thomas G.J. Carter.

         Kent County Family Court (K 15-592) Karen Lynch Bernard, Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Laura E. Ruzzo, Esq, . Deborah Miller Tate, Esq.

          For Defendant: H. Jefferson Melish, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Francis X. Flaherty, Associate Justice

         The defendant, Thomas Carter, appeals from a Family Court decision pending entry of final judgment following a divorce proceeding. The trial justice found the marital estate to be virtually nonexistent, with most of the disputed assets belonging solely to the plaintiff, Simeng Wu-Carter. Thomas disagrees with that finding; he argues that the trial justice erred in not identifying certain assets as marital property, which would have been subject to equitable distribution upon divorce.[1]

         This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and after reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part and vacate in part the Family Court decision pending entry of final judgment, and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


         Facts and Travel


         The Marriage and Its Dissolution

         It appears that the short-lived marriage between Simeng and Thomas was doomed from "I do." The couple met in the summer of 2012 via an online dating service. Just a few short months later, they planned to wed on October 20, 2012, on Cape Cod. Turmoil arose shortly before the wedding, however, when Thomas revealed to Simeng that, in fact, they could not be legally married at that time because his divorce from his third wife had yet to be finalized in California.

         Not surprisingly, this fact caused Simeng, a Chinese citizen, significant distress. Her visa, allowing her to remain in the United States, was scheduled to expire in February 2013, and this surprising and unwelcome hitch in her plans to marry Thomas meant she would soon lose her status to remain lawfully in this country. According to Simeng, she "was deceived" by Thomas as to his legal ability to marry her. She testified that he had assured her that his lawyer would be able to backdate his divorce so that their wedding would result in a valid marriage. This apparently false assurance-further complicated by the fact that Simeng had already made arrangements for her parents to travel from China for the nuptials-led the two to go through with their planned wedding ceremony, even though it would not result in a legal marriage.

         Eventually, on October 7, 2013, Simeng and Thomas were officially married in Rhode Island. It was at that point that Simeng and Thomas were able to move forward with an application for Simeng's temporary two-year green card.[2] There were two requirements for Simeng to obtain a green card: first, she had to be legally married to an American citizen, and second, her spouse had to sponsor her. By the time she submitted her application in December 2013, Simeng and Thomas were legally married. But other shortcomings relating to Thomas's sponsorship caused delay.

         For Thomas to have qualified as Simeng's sponsor, there was a requirement that his income be 125 percent above the poverty line for the applicable family size to show that he could support her financially. At that time, Simeng was living with Thomas and his three minor children from his second marriage; the poverty line for a family of five in 2014 was $27, 910. Accordingly, Thomas required $34, 887 in income to qualify as Simeng's sponsor. But he did not earn that amount, so Simeng and Thomas had to find another way to demonstrate his financial capacity to support her. One way to do so was to prove that Thomas had assets in his name totaling five times the difference between the above required income and his actual income. All told, this calculation amounted to $99, 435 in assets. Unfortunately, Thomas did not meet that qualification either.

         As a result, Simeng turned to her parents for help. Simeng's parents agreed to wire-transfer $100, 000 to her so that she could effectuate Thomas's qualifying as her sponsor. By then, Simeng's visa had expired; therefore, she was unable to open a bank account in her own name. For that reason, Thomas added Simeng's name to his preexisting Bank of America account, and her parents wired the money (in two $50, 000 payments) to Thomas and Simeng's newly-joint bank account. Now, with a bank statement evidencing $100, 000 in assets on hand, Thomas was able to prove that he had the requisite assets to qualify as his wife's sponsor.

         Shortly thereafter, in April 2014, Simeng's green card application was approved. She began working and immediately opened checking and savings accounts with Bank of America in her own name, into which she deposited her paychecks. Simeng also took $30, 000 of the $100, 000 that her parents had transferred to her and deposited it into her individual savings account; she deposited another $8, 000 of that money into her checking account. She then wired the remaining $62, 000 back to her parents' Bank of China account. According to Simeng, Thomas was aware of these transfers from their joint bank account and he did not object.

         However, the personal relationship between the couple had begun to unravel. By the spring of 2014, Simeng and Thomas were, in essence, leading separate lives. As Simeng explained it, Thomas and his children lived upstairs in the house, while she lived alone in the half-finished basement. She went upstairs only to use the bathroom; she bought a table, hot plate, couch, and toaster oven, and ate her meals in the basement next to the washing machine and dryer. Simeng testified that she paid all her own living expenses, including her car, gas, automobile insurance, health insurance, and groceries. On the other hand, Thomas testified that he paid for "[e]verything." Simeng kept her money completely apart from Thomas's, and she did not withdraw from or deposit into the joint bank account. Occasionally, Simeng said, she would give Thomas money if he had run out of funds, because he did not have a stable job. Thomas did receive monthly social security payments, which he deposited, along with any and all other income, into the joint bank account.

         Simeng and Thomas each testified to myriad troubles plaguing their relationship. She said the troubles first began when she learned that Thomas's divorce was not finalized. Yet even after they were actually married and Simeng had obtained her green card, she described enduring anger and jealousy from Thomas every time she left the house. That, according to Simeng, led to verbal altercations as well as physical assaults at the hands of Thomas. She said that she never reported him to the police because of various threats that he made. Thomas, on the other hand, placed the blame on Simeng. No matter what the topic, he said, she would frequently have violent outbursts: "she scratched, she bit, she threw things, she smashed things, [and] she was verbally abusive." Thomas described suffering emotional abuse from Simeng, who told him that he had to choose between her and his children. Simeng moved out of the marital domicile in November 2015.

         On December 18, 2015, Simeng filed a complaint for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences between her and Thomas that had caused the irremediable breakdown of their marriage. On June 3, 2016, Thomas filed a counterclaim for divorce, citing the same grounds. In October 2016, a trial was held in the Family Court.


         The Trial Justice's Analysis

         The trial justice issued a bench decision on October 31, 2016. She began by noting that "the main issue here seems to be the identification of certain assets and the determination as to whether * * * they are marital or nonmarital." To that end, the trial justice first found that the legal marriage date was October 7, 2013. This was despite the testimony regarding the wedding ceremony and attempted marriage that had occurred in October 2012, because "both parties knew that they were not free to be married as [Thomas] was still married to his third wife at that time[, ]" a marriage which did not legally end until August 2013. The trial justice then found that Simeng and Thomas separated in November 2015 due to irreconcilable differences in their lifestyles and in their goals for the marriage. With the relevant dates fixed, the trial justice proceeded to determine the marital estate.

         When she determined the marital estate, the trial justice listed all the parties' assets that were in existence at the time of trial; she then analyzed them one by one to decide which should be characterized as marital or nonmarital.[3] In dispute was a 2008 BMW automobile that Simeng had purchased in the spring of 2013. The trial justice found that Simeng purchased the car with $16, 000 that her parents had given to her as a gift prior to the marriage. The trial justice found that the car was registered in Simeng's name alone, and "[i]t was for the most part for her exclusive use." Accordingly, the trial justice concluded that the 2008 BMW was a nonmarital asset.

         The "most significant" asset in dispute was the funds in the amount of $100, 000 that Simeng's parents had wire-transferred into her and Thomas's joint Bank of America account during the marriage. The trial justice began her analysis of that asset by chronologically tracing the path of the money. On February 19, 2014, the money was wired to Thomas and Simeng's joint checking account. That same day, the couple transferred it into a joint savings account and finally into a joint money-market account. The money remained in the joint money-market account from February 19, 2014, until May 5, 2014, during which time the parties were working with an attorney in an effort to satisfy the immigration requirements so that Simeng could obtain her green card. On May 5, Simeng transferred $30, 000 of that money from the joint money-market account to a new individual savings account standing in her name, then transferred $8, 000 of it to a checking account that she had opened individually. Two days later, Simeng wired the remaining $62, 000 back to her parents' bank account in China.

         The trial justice noted that the money arrived from Simeng's parents within days of Thomas and Simeng learning from their immigration attorney that their last option to fulfill the green card application was to demonstrate that Thomas, as Simeng's sponsor, had approximately $100, 000 in assets. The trial justice accepted Simeng's testimony that the money was a loan or gift from her parents that was intended to satisfy that requirement. The trial justice also considered that matters had been further complicated by the fact that Simeng could not maintain her own bank account as a consequence of her immigration status at the time. Indeed, the trial justice found that that was the reason Simeng's name was added to Thomas's Bank of America account and why the money was transferred into that account. Thus, contrary to Thomas's assertion, the trial justice found that the money was not a wedding gift to the couple from Simeng's parents. After all, the trial justice emphasized, from the time the $100, 000 was wired into the joint account until Simeng transferred it to her individual accounts and back to her parents, neither party ever spent a penny of it.

         In sum, the trial justice concluded that "at all times the $16, 000 premarital gift to [Simeng] [for the car] and the $100, 000 gift to [Simeng] [for immigration purposes] during the marriage were never intended to be joint gifts, * * * nor at any point during the marriage did [Simeng] transmute these assets to become marital." As such, the trial justice awarded Simeng her individual bank accounts and Thomas the remaining joint bank accounts. The trial justice decided that the only marital assets subject to equitable distribution were two boats, which had a combined value of $3, 000. And because Simeng made no ...

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