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House v. Webb

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

November 19, 2019


          Date Submitted: November 13, 2019

          On Appeal from the County Court at Law Nacogdoches County, Texas Trial Court No. CV1713898

          Before Morriss, C.J., Burgess and Stevens, JJ.


          Josh R. Morriss, III Chief Justice.

         During her marriage to Leland House and before predeceasing him, Dianne House received a conveyance of over 874 acres from Elizabeth Spradley Bauman, her aunt. The question before us now, after Dianne's death, is whether the conveyance to her was a gift or a sale. If it was a sale, the land became community property, and Leland has an interest as Dianne's surviving husband. If a gift, as found by a Nacogdoches County[1] jury, the property became Dianne's separate property, and Leland has no claim.

         After Dianne's death, Leland pursued his claim that the property was community property by suing Dianne's son, David Webb, individually and as independent executor of the estate of Dianne House, deceased, and Duncan Webb (collectively the Webbs) to quiet title to the property. The Webbs asserted a counterclaim to quiet title and argued that the deed, made in consideration of Bauman's "love and affection" for Dianne, was a gift. After a Nacogdoches County jury found that, by clear and convincing evidence, the property had been a gift to Dianne, the trial court quieted title in David Webb, as trustee of the Dianne House Testamentary Trust.

         On appeal, Leland argues that the trial court erred in failing to construe the unambiguous deed as a sale and, as a result, erred in allowing parole evidence in support of the Webbs' position that the conveyance was a gift.[2] Alternatively, Leland argues that the deed was ambiguous and that the jury's verdict was not supported by sufficient evidence. Because we find the deed to be an unambiguous gift, we affirm.

         "In general, characterization of property is determined by the time and circumstances of its acquisition, often referred to as the 'inception of title' doctrine." Jennings v. Piazza, No. 12-18-00253-CV, 2019 WL 2710276, at *3 (Tex. App.-Tyler June 28, 2019, no pet.) (mem. op.) (quoting Rivera v. Hernandez, 441 S.W.3d 413, 420 (Tex. App.-El Paso 2014, pet. denied)). It is presumed that property possessed by spouses during marriage is community property, but this presumption can be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that it is the separate property of a spouse. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 3.002-3.003. Property a spouse acquires "during marriage by gift, devise, or descent" is separate property. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 3.001(2).

         Here, it is undisputed that Bauman conveyed a 757-acre tract of land known as the "Big Loco Farm" and a 117.36-acre tract known as "Little Farm" (collectively the Property) to Dianne while she was married to Leland. Accordingly, the Property was presumed to be community property unless clear and convincing evidence demonstrated that it was a gift. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 3.001; Jennings, 2019 WL 2710276, at *5. "A gift is a voluntary transfer of property to another made gratuitously and without consideration." Jennings, 2019 WL 2710276, at *5 (citing In re Marriage of Moncey, 404 S.W.3d 701, 710 (Tex. App.-Texarkana 2013, no pet.)). To determine whether the Property was conveyed as a gift or as the result of a sale, we first examine the deed.

         Both parties argue that the deed is unambiguous, but each also contends that the terms of the deed favor his own position. "Whether a written instrument is ambiguous is a question of law for the court." Richardson v. Mills, 514 S.W.3d 406, 413 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2017, pet. denied) (citing J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 229 (Tex. 2003); Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 394 (Tex. 1983)). "Therefore, we review the trial court's decision de novo." Id. (citing Kachina Pipeline Co. v. Lillis, 471 S.W.3d 445, 449 (Tex. 2015)). "When conducting a de novo review, we exercise our own judgment and redetermine each issue while according no deference to the trial court's decision." Id. "If, after we apply the relevant rules of construction, the written instrument can be given a definite legal meaning or interpretation, it is not ambiguous." Id. (citing Frost Nat'l Bank v. L & F Distribs., Ltd., 165 S.W.3d 310, 312 (Tex. 2005) (per curiam); R & P Enters. v. LaGuarta, Gavrel & Kirk, Inc., 596 S.W.2d 517, 519 (Tex. 1980)). But, if "a deed is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations, then the deed is ambiguous, and a fact issue exists as to the parties' intent." Jennings, 2019 WL 2710276, at *2 (citing Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. v. New Ulm Gas, Ltd., 940 S.W.2d 587, 589 (Tex. 1996); Hausser v. Cuellar, 345 S.W.3d 462, 467 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2011, pet. denied)). "[A]n ambiguity does not arise merely because the parties advance conflicting interpretations of the deed's language; instead, for an ambiguity to exist, both interpretations must be reasonable." Id.

         If the deed is determined to be unambiguous, we review it "without considering parole evidence." Richardson, 514 S.W.3d at 413. If a deed is unambiguous, "our primary duty when construing [it] . . . is to ascertain the intent of the parties from all of the language in the deed by applying a fundamental rule of construction known as the 'four corners' rule." Id. (citing Luckel v. White, 819 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Tex. 1991)). "We discern . . . intent from the entirety of the deed's language without reference to matters of mere form, relative position of descriptions, technicalities, or arbitrary rules." Id. (citing Stribling v. Millican DPC Partners, LP, 458 S.W.3d 17, 20 (Tex. 2015)). "No single provision taken alone will be given controlling effect." Id. (citing SAS Inst., Inc. v. Breitenfeld, 167 S.W.3d 840, 841 (Tex. 2005) (per curiam)). "We consider the entire writing and attempt to harmonize and give effect to all of its provisions by analyzing those provisions with reference to the document as a whole." Id. (citing Frost Nat'l Bank, 165 S.W.3d at 312). "We must assume the parties to the instrument intended every clause to have some effect; therefore, the language of the deed should be interpreted so that no clause is rendered meaningless." Id. (citing Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Ameriton Prop., Inc., 448 S.W.3d 671, 678 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2014, pet. denied)).

         The Texas Supreme Court has instructed that, if a court can ascertain the parties' intent from the language of the deed, "that should [generally] be the end of our analysis." Wenske v. Ealy, 521 S.W.3d 791, 794 (Tex. 2017). The warranty deed in question reads,

I, ELIZABETH SPRADLEY BAUMAN, . . . for and in consideration of the love and affection which I have for my niece, the Grantee, have GRANTED, SOLD AND CONVEYED, and by these presents do GRANT, SELL AND CONVEY unto DIAN[N]E HOUSE . . . all of the surface (without the present merchantable timber) and mineral estate in the following described real property in Nacogdoches County, Texas, to-wit: . . . "Big Loco Farm" . . . and "Little Farm."

         Leland argues that the deed does not contain the word "gift" or indicate that it is to be Dianne's sole and separate property. Because the terms "sold" and "sell" are included, Leland argues that the deed merely shows that Bauman loved Dianne and sold her the Property. Leland's argument requires us to ignore the provision that the property was granted, sold, and conveyed "for and in consideration of" love and affection. In other words, the price of the sale, as plainly stated by ...

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