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Gambini v. Hamilton

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 29, 2019

YVONNE M. GAMBINI, Appellant,
v.
PERRY W. HAMILTON, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3PA-16-01858 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa White, Judge.

          Yvonne M. Gambini, pro se, Wasilla, Appellant.

          Notice of nonparticipation filed by Kenneth J. Goldman, Kenneth J. Goldman, P.C., Palmer, for Appellee.

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

          OPINION

          BOLGER, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Yvonne Gambini appeals the superior court's property division order for her divorce from Perry Hamilton. Gambini argues that she is entitled to more than half of the marital estate and that the superior court erroneously treated a loan she made to Hamilton prior to their marriage as a marital obligation. She also contends that the court incorrectly valued Hamilton's retirement account and that several of its procedural decisions unfairly prejudiced her or violated her rights. None of Gambini's claims amounts to reversible error. We therefore affirm the superior court's property division order.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Sometime in 2006 Gambini and Hamilton rekindled a relationship from decades prior. Hamilton was married to someone else at the time, though he was in the process of dissolving that marriage. As part of this process, he agreed to take on certain financial obligations on behalf of his then-wife. Hamilton and Gambini married on May 29, 2007.

         About five months before they married, the couple took out a home equity line of credit (HELOC) for $50, 000, secured by a cabin Gambini owned in Washington, where they were living at the time. At trial Gambini asserted that $37, 000 of this first HELOC was a personal loan to Hamilton; she could not, however, remember "what [the $37, 000] was actually spent on." Hamilton testified that Gambini offered to help him speed along his divorce proceedings by lending him some money from the HELOC on her cabin; Hamilton recalled using $14, 000 of the HELOC funds to pay off debt associated with his previous marriage, but he was not certain how the rest was spent.

         Gambini and Hamilton made interest payments on the HELOC from a joint bank account, but they never made any payments toward the principal. Approximately one year after their marriage, the couple amended the HELOC, taking out another $42, 005.90 on the line of credit. This second HELOC disbursement helped fund the couple's move to Alaska and their purchase of two properties in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough: one on Hewitt Lake and one on Kim Drive.

         Eventually the couple sold the Kim Drive property to Gambini's son. They used the proceeds from the sale to purchase two lots adjoining the Kim Drive property- the Barbi Drive lots - and to develop them for a residence. A loan on Hamilton's 4Ol(k) also partially financed the purchase of the Barbi Drive lots.

         Gambini and Hamilton contracted with Selway Corporation to finance the construction of a residence on the Barbi lots. The couple conveyed the lots to Selway, which used the property as security for a loan to finance construction of the residence; the couple would purchase the residence from Selway upon construction. Construction on the residence was near completion when the couple separated. At that time they modified the contract with Selway so Gambini became the sole buyer.

         Gambini filed for divorce in August 2016. Her complaint recited the basic elements of a claim for divorce and included no specific claims as to the division of the marital estate. After Hamilton served his response, Gambini moved for leave to amend her complaint to add specific claims about the division of marital assets as well as contract and tort claims. The superior court denied this motion in December. In the course of discovery, Gambini also filed a "Motion to Determine the Sufficiency of Defendant's Objections and Answers to Plaintiff s Request for Admissions and to Deem Such Requests Admitted." The superior court did not rule on the motion before the case went to trial.

         The parties filed trial briefs in May 2017, and a bench trial was held the next day. Hamilton appeared with counsel, and Gambini was unrepresented, although her brother, sister, and business partner were present. Gambini and Hamilton were the only witnesses.

         The superior court issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law in December. The court divided the marital estate roughly equally. It granted each party a parcel of real property; declared the Washington cabin Gambini's separate property but the HELOC taken out on it a marital obligation; and awarded Gambini half of the marital portion of Hamilton's 4Ol(k), to account for his share of the HELOC assigned to Gambini. The court also noted its decision not to address Gambini's discovery motion prior to trial, declaring the motion now moot.

         In December 2017 Hamilton filed a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to govern the transfer of the portion of his 4Ol(k) owed to Gambini. Gambini filed her appeal in January 2018, and Hamilton filed a notice of non-participation later that month. During the pendency of Gambini's appeal, she and Hamilton engaged in litigation over the QDRO.

         III. DISCUSSION

         On appeal Gambini argues that the superior court improperly classified two real-property parcels and the HELOC secured by her Washington cabin as marital. She also contends that the court abused its discretion in dividing the marital estate equally and that it incorrectly valued Hamilton's retirement account. She challenges the manner in which the trial court handled her divorce proceedings, arguing that it improperly prejudiced her in a variety of ways. And she challenges the QDRO issued after she filed her notice of appeal.

         Upon reviewing Gambini's claims, we affirm the superior court's property division order. Although the court's reasoning with respect to classification of the HELOC as a marital investment was partially flawed, its ultimate conclusion was not clearly erroneous. And none of Gambini's other claims amount to reversible error.

         A. The Superior Court's Classification Of Assets And Obligations Was Not Erroneous.

         When making an equitable division of marital assets, the superior court must first determine "what specific property is available for distribution," which involves classifying assets as separate or marital.[1] "The characterization of property as separate or marital may involve both legal and factual questions."[2] "Findings of fact are reviewed for clear error, but whether the trial court applied the correct legal rule in exercising its discretion is a question of law that we review de novo using our independent judgment."[3] "We will find clear error only if 'we are left with a definite and firm conviction on the entire record that a mistake has been made.' "[4]

         1. Classifying the entire HELOC as a marital obligation was not clear error.

         Gambini argues that a portion of the HELOC was a personal loan to Hamilton, made prior to the marriage to assist Hamilton with expenses related to his previous marriage. She contends that the superior court erred by classifying such funds, used to finance the expenses of another marriage, as a marital obligation. The superior court considered Gambini's arguments and observed that she "provided no documents memorializing the loan and she did not seek repayment of the loan at any time during the parties' nine-year marriage." The court concluded that the HELOC in its entirety was a marital investment because it found that Gambini and Hamilton "intended [it] to be a means to finalize [Hamilton's] divorce so that they could begin their marriage."

         The superior court's factual finding that no part of the HELOC constituted a personal loan to Hamilton was not clearly erroneous. The court was correct that Gambini did not submit any documents identifying a subset of the HELOC funds as a loan to Hamilton, nor did she introduce evidence that she had ever sought repayment of the alleged loan. Moreover the evidence indicated that the funds at issue were spent on an indeterminate mix of joint and separate obligations and expenses. On this record, we are not left "with a definite and ...


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