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In re Marriage of Stegall

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

May 12, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE MARRIAGE OF JULIE MAREE STEGALL AND KERRY DEAN STEGALL AND IN THE INTEREST OF T.J.S., A CHILD

         On Appeal from the 316th District Court Hutchinson County, Texas Trial Court No. 41, 095, Honorable David L. Gleason, Presiding

          Before CAMPBELL and PIRTLE, JJ., and HANCOCK, S.J.[1]

          OPINION

          Mackey K. Hancock Senior Justice

         Appellant, Julie Maree Stegall, appeals the trial court's Final Decree of Divorce, limited to the court's property division and, specifically, the classification of cattle as the separate property of appellee, Kerry Dean Stegall. She contends that the mischaracterization of this property constitutes an abuse of discretion that requires reversal of the trial court's just and right division of the community estate. Agreeing with Julie's contention, we will reverse.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Julie and Kerry were married on April 24, 2009. Prior to the marriage, Kerry traded cattle. By his own assessment, Kerry did not keep good records. He did not know the exact amount of money or heads of cattle that he possessed on the date of his marriage to Julie, but the trial court found that he had "approximately $140, 000 in cash, several motor vehicles and trailers, over 100 head of cattle and calves, hay, forage, saddles and tack, 30 head of horses, a residence, and two other pieces of real property" on that date. Kerry traded cattle throughout the marriage and Julie worked sporadically. On November 26, 2013, Julie filed for divorce.

         On January 7 and 8, 2015, the trial court held a bench trial in the divorce. After hearing evidence, the trial court granted the divorce, entered orders regarding the child of the marriage, divided the community estate, and confirmed the parties' separate property. The trial court classified "all cattle, calves in gestation or on the ground, hay, feed, forage, feed stuff, feeders, tubs, tanks, and vet supplies, currently under the control of [Kerry] or in Victoria, Texas, or owned by [Kerry]'s business, One More Little Deal" as Kerry's separate property. Julie seeks to appeal this classification.

         Julie presents six issues by her appeal. Her first issue contends that the trial court abused its discretion by classifying the cattle as Kerry's separate property. By her second issue, Julie contends that there was sufficient evidence to properly determine the value of the marital estate. Julie's third through sixth issues identify four factors that would constitute an abuse of discretion if they were considered by the trial court in making the just and right division of the community estate.

         In his response brief, Kerry filed a motion to dismiss contending that Julie voluntarily accepted benefits under the divorce decree and is, therefore, estopped to challenge the judgment on appeal. Julie responds contending that she accepted the benefits of the divorce decree due to economic necessity.

         Motion to Dismiss

         Kerry contends that Julie is estopped from challenging the divorce decree on appeal because she voluntarily accepted the benefits of the decree. "[T]he acceptance-of-benefits doctrine is a fact-dependent, estoppel-based doctrine focused on preventing unfair prejudice to the opposing party." Kramer v. Kastleman, 508 S.W.3d 211, 213-14 (Tex. 2017). Being rooted in equity, the doctrine bars an appeal if an appellant voluntarily accepts a judgment's benefits and such acceptance causes the opposing party to be disadvantaged. Id. at 217. The Texas Supreme Court has recently clarified that,

>before denying a merits-based resolution to a dispute, courts must evaluate whether, by asserting dominion over assets awarded in the judgment under review, the appealing party clearly intended to acquiesce in the judgment; whether the assets have been so dissipated as to prevent their recovery if the judgment is reversed or modified; and whether the opposing party will be unfairly prejudiced.

Id. at 227. In determining whether the doctrine applies in a given case, several nonexclusive factors are ...


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