Opinions, August 30, 2016: Challenging Decrees & Marital Property Divisions

The First District Court of Appeals released its memorandum opinion in Maher v. Maher, No. 01-14-00106-CV today, in which the trial court’s division of the marital estate was affirmed.

Cynthia’s petition for divorce from Henry included a reimbursement claim. In his counterpetition, Henry also alleged a reimbursement claim and requested a disproportionate division of the estate in his favor.

In 1995, Cynthia’s parents began giving her monetary gifts which started at $5,000 per year and increased over time. After her mother’s death in 2001, Cynthia became a beneficiary of a bypass trust created by her mother. Cynthia received distributions from the trust, plus the annual gifts of money. After her father passed in 2007, Cynthia received further distributions. She testified that all of these gifts and distributions added up to more than $1.2m in separate property. She also testified that her parents had also given monetary gifts to Henry as well, totaling $68,000, which was his separate property.

At trial, Cynthia and Henry provided conflicting testimony over how much of their separate property and community property was used to purchase and develop their real property.

Cynthia testified that she had a dating relationship with another man after she and Henry had been separated and were headed for divorce.

In his first issue, Henry argued that the trial court erred in characterizing the assets of the marital estate and that Cynthia failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence the separate character of the property she claimed was separate. In addition to her testimony, Cynthia introduced into evidence a spreadsheet which showed the date and the amount of each monetary gift, trust disbursement, or estate distribution that Cynthia received during the marriage and the account or entity into which the money was funneled. Cynthia testified that she created the spreadsheet by using bank statements, canceled checks, and information from the trust’s executor. The opinion does not mention any other evidence in support of Cynthia’s separate property claim besides her testimony and the spreadsheet she created which was admitted into evidence.  The Court of Appeals found that this was sufficient to overcome the community property presumption to establish by clear and convincing evidence the $1.2m value of her separate property. Henry’s first issue was overruled.

In his second issue, Henry argued the trial court erred in its valuation of the real property. But the value used by the trial court came from an appraisal admitted into evidence before the issuance of the decree (it was the lowest value of the three appraisals admitted into evidence). The record was unclear, but it appeared the trial court ordered the third appraisal sua sponte after trial, which was within its discretion.  The Court of Appeals stated Henry’s brief failed to provide any explanation “as to how or why the trial court’s consideration of the third appraisal constituted an abuse of discretion.” Because the issue was not adequately briefed, Henry’s second issue was overruled.

In his third issue, Henry argued the trial court erred in granting Cynthia’s reimbursement claim to the tune of $800,000 because, according to Henry, she failed to adequately trace her separate property and establish the enhancement in value of the real property. To uphold the trial court’s judgment, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether Cynthia proved by clear and convincing evidence that she contributed $800,000 from her separate property funds to the community estate. Cynthia testified that she contributed $871,000 of her separate property funds to the purchase and development of the real property, a figure also found on her spreadsheet. The Court of Appeals found Cynthia’s testimony and the spreadsheet were sufficient evidence to support the reimbursement judgment of $800,000.

Additionally, Henry argued Cynthia failed to establish that an American Express payment of almost $300,000 was a reimburseable expenditure. The problem with this argument, said the Court of Appeals, is that Cynthia alleged a reimbursement claim for $1.27m and the trial court granted the claim for only $800,000. But Henry didn’t challenge the other reimbursement expenditures that added up to more than $800,000, so even if he was correct that Cynthia failed to establish the $300,000 Amex payment was not a reimburseable claim, he failed to challenge the other expenses adding up to more than the $800,000 reimbursement judgment.

Henry also argued Cynthia failed to establish the real property’s value was enhanced by $921,457.28 as she claimed. But the trial court’s reimbursement judgment was for about $800,000, a figure it did not break down in its judgment or the findings of fact and conclusions of law. Without such a break down, the Court of Appeals was compelled to assume the trial court’s determination was appropriate.

In his fourth issue, Henry argues the trial court erred in not granting him a disproportionate division based on Cynthia’s relationship with another man before the divorce was granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant the divorce on insupportability grounds because there was a evidence admitted that the marriage had become insupportable due to discord and conflict. In other words, just because another ground for divorce is established, doesn’t mean the trial court has to grant the divorce on that ground.

In his fifth issue, Henry argued the trial court denied him due process of law because it: “failed to ensure the final disposition of the case within 6 months from the appearance date”; allowed his counsel to withdraw four days before the entry of the final decree; failed to timely file the FF&CL; signed Cynthia’s proposed FF&CL; failed to timely cause the FF&CL to be mailed to him; and failed to set a hearing on his motion for new trial. The Court of Appeals found these purported trial errors were inadequately briefed and thus denied.

The trial court’s decree and division was affirmed.




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