No Harm, No Foul in Appeal of Divorce Case

Today, in Kramer v. Kastleman, the Texas Supreme Court clarified the application of the acceptance-of-benefits doctrine to an appeal of a divorce case, an issue it has not taken up since its decision 67 years ago in Carle v. Carle. Simply put, the doctrine means a party cannot have it both ways—appeal the court ruling while accepting the benefits of it—and if it was found that a party had done so, his appeal could be dismissed with no review of the merits.

While there were exceptions to the doctrine, such as economic necessity, the Court noted in Kastleman that the exceptions had not been uniformly applied by the various courts of appeals in Texas. Some courts applied a strict approach and summarily dismissed a party’s appeal, while others took a more enlightened approach in reviewing and applying the exceptions.

The Court also noted that this doctrine is particularly problematic in divorce cases where a party may be accepting benefits in property in which he or she already had an interest as part of the marital estate. In these instances, the application of the doctrine as a hard-and-fast rule is contrary to its origins in equity—fairness. It is also contrary to this state’s policy favoring adjudication on the merits of a claim rather than on a technicality.

The Court concluded that equity does not favor a Catch-22, putting a party in the position of choosing to give up control of community property or give up their appeal. Merely using community property awarded in the decree is not enough to preclude an appeal without a showing that the other party has been prejudiced by the use of the property.

The bottom line for divorcing parties in Texas is that now, in weighing the factors as to whether to appeal a divorce decree, using property awarded to them in the decree is no longer an automatic foul resulting in dismissal.