Texas Appeals Court Rejects Challenge to Jury Charge in Divorce Case

In a jury trial, the court must submit to the jury the instructions and definitions needed for it to render a verdict.  The court cannot comment directly on the weight of the evidence, but an incidental comment on the weight of the evidence may be acceptable.  Tex. R. Civ. P. 277. A husband recently appealed his divorce decree, arguing the trial court erred in failing to give a requested jury instruction and improperly commenting on the weight of the evidence.

The Trial

According to the appeals court, the husband petitioned for divorce in August 2019, seeking a disproportionate share of the marital estate and alleging the wife committed fraud on the marriage. He asked the court to confirm the marital residence was part separate property and set aside a 2019 gift warranty deed conveying it to the wife.  He alleged the deed was “done by mistake, undue influence, and under duress.”

The wife disputed the husband’s claims of mistake or fraud.  She also sought a disproportionate share of the property and requested exclusive possession and use of the residence.

The husband testified he bought the property with separate funds to use as marital property.  He testified they put the deed solely in the wife’s name in December 2017 because he thought his lack of legal status in the U.S. prevented him from buying property.  He said the notary public who prepared the paperwork for his green card advised him he needed evidence they were a real couple, like a joint bank account, pictures, and car insurance.  In May 2018, the parties executed a deed naming both as joint owners, which the husband said was to prepare for him to get legal status.

The husband testified the wife told him the property should be in only her name because she was a U.S. citizen.  He said he signed the gift warranty deed in 2019 to keep her happy and save his marriage.  He said he did not read it because it was not translated into Spanish.

The notary public who prepared the 2019 deed testified the husband requested and paid for the drafting.  She said she read it to him in Spanish. She testified he confirmed he wanted to gift the home to the wife.  She testified she saw no indication he was acting against his will.

The wife testified the property was intended to be the marital home, but the husband wanted her to have property in her name.  She said it was his “wedding gift” to her. She said they had not talked about divorce at that point and she had not threatened or coerced him.  She said she was sure he intended it to be a gift.

The trial court granted a partial directed verdict, finding no evidence of duress or accident in the property transfer.  The court also denied the husband’s request for a jury instruction to characterize the home.  The jury found the husband executed the deed transferring his interest in the home to the wife on July 8, 2019 and that there was no fraud or mistake.  The final divorce decree awarded the wife sole possession of the property.

The Jury Charge

The husband appealed, arguing the trial court erred by not submitting a characterization charge to the jury.

The jury charge asked if the jury found the husband had executed a deed conveying his separate interest in the property on July 8, 2019 and if he did so as a result of fraud or mistake.  The jury was not asked to characterize the property as separate or community property.

Pursuant to Tex. R. Civ. P. 278, a party is entitled to a jury question if the issue is raised by the pleadings and evidence.  The appeals court acknowledged the husband requested confirmation the property was his separate property, but noted that the only relevant issue disputed at trial was whether the 2019 deed was valid.  The evidence raised the question of whether the conveyance was made properly without fraud or mistake.

The first question of the jury charge indicated the property had been at least partially the husband’s separate property before the gift deed was executed.  If the deed was valid, however, the property was in the wife’s name only and no longer the husband’s separate property.

The jury was asked to determine if the conveyance was made under mistake or fraud and concluded it was proper.  The appeals court noted an improper jury question may be harmless if it is rendered immaterial by the jury’s other answers.  The appeals court concluded the property’s status before it was conveyed was immaterial because the jury found the husband had gifted the property to the wife.  Any error in failing to submit the question regarding characterization was harmless.

Comment on the Weight of the Evidence

The husband also argued the jury questions constituted an improper comment on the weight of the evidence. A jury instruction is an improper comment on the weight of the evidence if it suggests the judge’s opinion about issue.  There is also an improper comment on the weight of the evidence if “the judge assumed the truth of a material controverted fact or exaggerated, minimized, or withdrew some pertinent evidence from the jury’s consideration.” Redwine v. AAA Life Ins.

The husband argued the jury charge assumed he was conveying the property without considering his intent, but he testified he signed the deed to make the wife happy and try to save the marriage. His attorney asked the jury to answer “yes” to the question on whether the conveyance had been made.

The husband also argued the question precluded the jury from considering prior conduct and conveyances.  The appeals court noted, however, the jury had received evidence and heard testimony on those matters without limitations on considering them.

The appeals court, as required, considered the entire record as a whole and concluded there was no improper comment on the weight of the evidence.

The appeals court affirmed the judgment.

Contact a Skilled Dallas Divorce Attorney

If your marriage is ending, a knowledgeable Texas family law attorney can help you.  Property characterization can be a complex issue, especially when there have been multiple conveyances.  Call 214.692.8200 to schedule a consultation with McClure Law Group.


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