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Hall v. Hall

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 14, 2018

BERTHA DELORES HALL, Appellant,
v.
ADOLPH HALL, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, No. 3PA-14-01357 CI, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Eric Smith, Judge.

          Lynda A. Limón, Limón Law Firm, Anchorage, for Appellant.

          David A. Golter, Golter Law Office, LLC, Palmer, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          STOWERS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A couple divorced in 2015 and disputed whether certain pieces of real property in Louisiana and Mississippi were separate or marital. The superior court relied on provisions in a document titled a last will and testament for its finding that the parties intended that the Louisiana properties be the husband's separate property and that the Mississippi properties be the wife's separate property. We conclude that the court erred in its transmutation analysis. The court also erred in not providing support for its finding regarding the ownership of one of the Louisiana properties and in not addressing the question of the purported conveyance of properties by the husband to his children before the parties' separation. We reverse the superior court's property distribution decision and remand for further proceedings.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Adolph and Bertha Hall[1] married in June 1975, separated in November 2014, and divorced in August 2015. No children were born of the marriage. Both Adolph and Bertha had been married previously and have children from their first marriages.

         Before they married, Adolph owned 137 acres in Louisiana. He defaulted on that property when he and his first wife divorced. Adolph's father purchased the property to avoid foreclosure, with the understanding that Adolph would pay him back for it. Adolph's father executed a counterletter[2] in March 1973, documenting that the property was purchased on behalf of Adolph. At some point after the initial document was prepared, the following language was added to the counterletter: "$40, 000.00 paid to John Hall by Adolph Hall May 1975, Adolph Hall being Divorced = and being a Single man." Someone initialed the change with the date May 15, 1975; Adolph did not know who initialed it and testified that the initials were neither his nor his father's. Adolph testified that he finished repaying the $40, 000 in May 1975, shortly before his marriage to Bertha on June 9, 1975, but the superior court "did not find credible Adolph's testimony that he was able to pay his father $40, 000 in a little under two years" and pointed out that "the provenance of the annotation on the Counter Letter is unclear." Instead, "[t]he court found credible Bertha's testimony that the parties made payments on the 137 acres during the marriage." The 137 acres were deeded to Adolph by his father in January 1983. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development later purchased a portion of that land, with both Adolph and Bertha signing the document of sale. Adolph also sold timber from the 137 acres and sometimes placed the sale proceeds into joint marital accounts. He conveyed the 137 acres to his children in January 2014, allegedly without Bertha's knowledge.

         Other properties discussed during Adolph and Bertha's divorce proceedings include three smaller lots in Louisiana and some land in Mississippi. Adolph and Bertha dispute the ownership of one of the smaller Louisiana lots, lot 9, which was purchased during the marriage. According to Adolph, his son owned half of lot 9, having made monthly payments on it. He testified that the other half was marital and that he "felt like [Bertha] had an interest in the property" and therefore offered to pay her "[h]alf of what the appraiser's office has got it assessed for" when he conveyed the entire lot to his son in January 2014. According to Bertha, the payments from the son were not for the loan on lot 9 but rather for other loans between him and his father. She testified that she and Adolph still owned lot 9 and that she was not aware of the conveyance to Adolph's son until her attorney received that information from Adolph. As to the land in Mississippi, the superior court found that it was owned by Bertha prior to the marriage; according to Bertha's testimony, however, she received three acres as an inheritance, and she and Adolph later purchased additional property together in Mississippi.

         In September 2007 Adolph and Bertha executed a document entitled "Last Will & Testament of Adolph Hall." The document was drafted without the aid of an attorney. Bertha testified that Adolph drafted the document and that she disagreed with "the way he had it programmed" but eventually signed after making a change to one of the paragraphs. Despite her reluctance to sign the document and her testimony that she had just had heart surgery, the superior court found "there was no evidence that she was compelled to sign the document or that she did not understand what she was signing." The document includes the following provision, signed by Adolph: "I, Adolph Hall give up all rights to the Property in the State of Mississippi, which is in the name of Adolph & Bertha Hall." The following provision in the document was signed by Bertha: "I, Bertha Hall give up all rights to the property in the State of Louisiana, with the exception of the cattle & Certificate of Deposit (CD), which is also in the state of Louisiana."

         Adolph testified that the document "was done to confirm if anything did happen to [him], that the land in Louisiana would be conveyed to [his] children," and Bertha testified that it was for when Adolph died. Both Adolph and Bertha testified that the agreement between them was that the property in Louisiana would be Adolph's and would be given to Adolph's children and that the property in Mississippi would be Bertha's, but the context suggests Bertha meant that this would be the arrangement upon Adolph's death.

         In January 2014 Bertha talked with Adolph about getting a legal separation. Adolph testified that the conversation took place around Bertha's birthday, which he indicated is January 6 or 7. On January 22 Adolph transferred the 137 acres to his children. But he testified that the conversation about legal separation did not take place before he conveyed the ...


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