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Umland v. Graham

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

November 19, 2019

CARLA E. UMLAND, Respondent,
v.
LIZABETH G. GRAHAM, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri The Honorable Shane T. Alexander, Judge

          Before: Alok Ahuja, Presiding Judge, Gary D. Witt, Judge and Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge

          Gary D. Witt, Judge

         Appellant Lizabeth Graham ("Graham") appeals the judgment of the Circuit Court of Clay County in an action to partition property held jointly with her partner, Carla Umland ("Umland"). Graham alleges that the circuit court erred when it failed to properly credit her for the down payment she made towards the purchase of the home, failed to account for a period of time in which she was solely responsible for the payment of the mortgage, and in finding the parties jointly responsible for the balance of a home equity line of credit. We affirm.

         Factual Background[1]

         Graham and Umland began living together in the fall of 1994 at Graham's residence, located at 8871 E. 52 Terr., Kansas City, Missouri ("8871 Property"). From the fall of 1995 until at least January 2016, they committed themselves to live together as a married couple, including to emotionally and financially support one another, living together through retirement until death. This included a proposal and exchange of rings, although, at the time, the State of Missouri did not allow same-sex couples to marry. Beginning in at least 1998, the parties began contributing both of their incomes into a joint bank account from which their joint household and personal expenses were paid. Most of their joint expenses, including the mortgage payment, utilities, and investments, were paid from the joint account until it was closed by Graham in September 2016.

         In January 1999, the couple purchased a residence, commonly known as 2301 Redbud Drive, Liberty, Clay County, Missouri ("Redbud Property"), titled to them as joint tenants with the right of survivorship and subject to a mortgage in both of their names. Graham contributed $50, 000.00 to the down-payment on the property, which was derived from the sale of the 8871 Property titled solely to Graham. The payments and obligations secured by the Redbud Property were paid from joint earnings until at least 2013, when Umland left her employment at Proctor and Gamble.

         After Umland ceased working for Proctor and Gamble, the parties agreed that Umland would form and operate two business entities, All Trades Home Maintenance and Repair, LLC and Aden Fire and Safety, LLC. The businesses were solely owned by Umland to shield the couple's joint assets, but they were to be operated for the couple's joint benefit. The parties jointly obtained a home equity line of credit ("HELOC") to cover the startup costs and business expenses. The HELOC was secured by a Second Deed of Trust on the Redbud Property. The original credit limit on the HELOC was $90, 000. Due to business losses, the parties later increased this limit to $170, 000. The businesses ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. At the time the Redbud Property was sold the HELOC was paid in full in the sum of $98, 000.

         The couple shared various other accounts held as joint tenants with the rights of survivorship as well as bank accounts and retirement accounts held individually. They also held title jointly to several motor vehicles and trailers. On September 19, 2002, Graham and Umland entered into an "Estate Plan and Revocable Trust of Lizabeth G. Graham and Carla E. Umland," which provided, among other things, that "all property subject to this Trust during the joint lives of the Grantors shall be beneficially owned by them Tenants by the Entirety." The division of these assets are not at issue in this appeal.[2] Additionally, the couple shared one daughter, an adult at the time of the trial.

         The court entered its Judgment on May 10, 2018 ("Judgment"). After dividing all of the assets, the trial court ordered Graham to pay Umland a payment of $272, 005.00 in order to equalize the division of assets. As relevant to this case, the court found that the net proceeds from the sale of the Redbud Property should be divided equally between the parties. Further, the court found that the HELOC, which was secured by the Redbud Property, was a joint debt for which both parties were equally responsible, and therefore, was equally considered toward each party in the final division of the assets. This appeal followed.

         Standard of Review

"A partition action is a court tried action and is thus reviewed pursuant to Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30 (Mo. banc 1976)." Hoit v. Rankin, 320 S.W.3d 761, 765 (Mo. App. W.D.2010). "'[W]e will sustain the judgment of the trial court unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.'" Id. (quoting Clark v. Dady, 131 S.W.3d 382, 386 (Mo. App. W.D.2004)). "We defer to the trial court's findings of fact because of its superior ability to assess the credibility of witnesses." Id.

Felderman v. Zweifel, 346 S.W.3d 386, 388 (Mo. App. W.D. ...


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