Opinions, April 11, 2017: Always Get Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law If You’re Going to Appeal.

This morning the First District Court of Appeals released its published opinion in Brown v. Wokocha, No. 01-15-00759-CV, which underscores the necessity of obtaining findings of fact and conclusions of law in trial court if you’re going to appeal.

Brown and Wokocha married in 2004 and separated in 2011. Brown filed for divorce in August 2013. Wokocha countersued, alleging fraudulent transfer, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy, as well as breach of fiduciary duty and fraud claims against Brown and various business entities. Wokocha also added claims against Brown’s three adult daughters, alleging Brown had created business entities in her daughters’ names with community funds in an effort to defraud the community. The daughters’ motion for summary judgment was granted. The parties tried the case to the bench and the trial court entered a decree which Brown alleges on appeal improperly granted Wokocha a disproportionate share of the estate.

The decree does not state it is awarding Wokocha a disproportionate share of the estate; it merely says it is granting a just and right division. The trial court did not make any findings as to the value of any claim or asset and the record (limited per TRAP 34.6) did not include a request from Brown for findings of fact and conclusions of law. As such, the record does not contain findings on the values ascribed by the trial court to any community asset or liability or to Wokocha’s reimbursement claims or the percentage of the estate each party received in the division. Without this information, the Court of Appeals found it could not conclude the trial court abused its discretion.

Brown also challenged the trial court’s characterization of property. Brown alleges the trial court erred by finding three life insurance policies and three business entities were community property instead of separate property. Wokocha argued Brown could not establish the separate character of the life insurance policies because they were opened during the marriage (in her daughters’ names with her as the beneficiary) and maintained with community funds. Similarly, Wokocha argued the business entities were created during the marriage with community funds. The Court of Appeals ruled that even assuming the trial court erred in characterizing the property, Brown had not established the error materially affected the division of the estate because she did not request findings of fact and conclusions of law. Without findings, the COA could not discern the values the trial court gave to the property or what percentage of the estate the assets represented.

In her third issue, Brown argued the trial court erred by failing to award attorney’s fees to the attorney who represented her daughters and the business entities in trial court. Brown argues Wokocha improperly added these parties to the divorce as third-party defendants and thus they were entitled to a fee award. The COA found no support for Brown’s claim that third-party defendants in a divorce are entitled to an attorney’s fee award (Not to mention the fact that I’m not sure how Brown had standing to assert this issue on behalf of the third parties). The issue was overruled.

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