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Willett v. Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

June 2, 2017

Ira D. Willett, Jr., Appellant
v.
Maria Rodriguez, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TOM GREEN COUNTY, 391ST JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D14-0306F, HONORABLE THOMAS J. GOSSETT, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Pemberton, and Field

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Bob Pemberton, Justice

         Ira D. Willett, Jr., acting pro se at this juncture, [1] appeals from a final divorce decree from the district court that ended his common-law marriage to Maria Rodriguez. In two issues, Willett asserts that the district court erred or abused its discretion by (1) mischaracterizing certain real property as community property rather than as his separate property, and (2) failing to reimburse Willett for expenditures he claims to have made to benefit the community estate from his separate property. We will overrule Willett's contentions and affirm the decree.

         BACKGROUND

         There is no dispute that the parties commenced a common-law marriage during the spring of 2013, although they differed as to precisely when it began. There were no children of the marriage, and the contested issues regarding the property division centered on the characterization of two parcels of real property that had been acquired in April 2013. On April 1 of that year, Willett, purportedly as "a single person, " acquired by warranty deed a .995-acre parcel of residential property, containing a "main house" with a detached apartment, and having the address of 2905 Armstrong Street in San Angelo. However, on April 3-two days later-Willett and Rodriguez, now as "a married couple, " acquired by warranty deed an adjacent 4.046-acre parcel of residential property, containing five or six houses, and having the address of 2904 Blum Street.[2] Rodriguez alleged that both properties had been acquired during the marriage and, in turn, were community property, [3] while Willett maintained that both properties were his sole separate property. According to Willett, the couple's marriage had not begun until after the April 1 purchase of the Armstrong property. While he acknowledged that the marriage had begun by the time of the April 3 purchase of the Blum property, Willett urged that the property should nonetheless be characterized as his separate property because the inception of title traced back to an earnest-money contract that predated the marriage.

         In the event the district court characterized either parcel as community property, Willett sought reimbursement of amounts he claimed to have expended from a pre-marriage retirement account to purchase or improve the properties. These expenditures included down payments Willett made in connection with the properties' purchases, $10, 000 of a $42, 000 purchase price for the Armstrong property and $8, 000 of a $38, 000 purchase price for the Blum property. While Rodriguez appeared to concede during trial that Willett was, in theory, entitled to reimbursement of the down payment amounts, she adduced evidence to the effect that any such contributions would have been offset by benefits Willett's separate-property interests received from community contributions or from her own separate property.

         After hearing evidence, the district court signed a final divorce decree in which it characterized the Armstrong property as Willett's separate property but the Blum property as community property. It divided that community asset by awarding Willett title and ordering him to pay one-half of the equity in same to Rodriguez within 180 days, with that obligation secured by an equitable lien on the property. The decree did not award Willett reimbursement for any separate property expended to benefit the Blum property. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Willett raises two issues on appeal that largely track his principal theories before the district court. First, he argues that the district court mischaracterized the Blum property as community property rather than his separate property. Second, he argues, in the alternative, that if the Blum property is characterized as community property, he is entitled to reimbursement for his down-payment on the property and also for improvements he claims to have subsequently made to the property with his separate funds.

         Characterization

         "Property possessed by either spouse during or on dissolution of marriage is presumed to be community property."[4] And "the degree of proof necessary to establish the property is separate property is clear and convincing evidence."[5] Evidence is "clear and convincing" if it meets "the measure or degree of proof that will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established."[6] Any doubts as to the proper characterization of the property are resolved in favor of community status.[7] Because it is undisputed that the Blum property was possessed by Willett and Rodriguez upon the dissolution of their marriage, it was presumptively characterized as community property, and it was Willett's burden to prove that it was separate property by clear and convincing evidence.

         In an attempt to meet his burden and overcome the presumption of community property, Willett relies on the inception-of-title doctrine, i.e., the familiar principle that property should be characterized as community or separate at the point in time "when a party first has a claim of right to the property by virtue of which title is ultimately vested" relative to the time at which the marriage began.[8] If the inception of title predated the marriage, then the property may be characterized as separate property, [9] and if the inception of title occurred after the marriage began, then the property generally is community property.[10]

         Although Willett acknowledges that the deed to the Blum property was executed after his marriage to Rodriguez began (indeed, the deed explicitly names as the purchaser both him and Rodriguez, as "a married couple"), he insists that an earnest-money contract he executed in connection with the purchase-and, he claims, prior to the commencement of his marriage-suffices as clear-and-convincing evidence that he held title to the property prior to their marriage. The district court impliedly failed to find these facts, and the substance of Willett's arguments on appeal is that his evidence regarding the ...


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