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Sherri Graves v. Rodney Graves

September 6, 2012


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DRB-849-10) (Hon. Jeanette J. Clark, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterly, Associate Judge:

Submitted April 10, 2012

Before THOMPSON and EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and TERRY, Senior Judge.

This case is a corollary to Gore v. Gore, 638 A.2d 672 (D.C. 1994). In Gore, we examined the breadth of a trial court‟s statutory authority to equitably distribute marital property in a divorce proceeding*fn1 when one of the spouses holds legal title to that property with a parent. We held that where the parent had been properly joined as a party to the action, the trial court could determine if the parent held bare legal title in constructive trust for the spouse who was not named on the deed and, if so, could order the equitable distribution of the entire property. Id. at 676. Here we are presented with similar facts - one of the divorcing spouses, the wife, holds legal title to the marital home with her father - with one important distinction: the father was not joined as a party in the divorce proceeding. We must now determine whether the trial court could distribute the entire equity in the marital home in the father‟s absence. We hold that the trial court could not. Indeed, under the circumstances, the father was an indispensable party under Superior Court Domestic Relations Rule 19. Thus, the trial court had an independent obligation to join him to the action. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this case for the trial court to join the wife‟s father and to determine whether the equitable distribution of the marital home must be recalculated. We reject appellant‟s remaining claim on appeal.


Mr. and Ms. Graves were married and purchased a house in the District of Columbia in 1997. The couple lived there with their three children until they separated in 2007. Mr. Graves subsequently filed for divorce, and in January 2011 a two-day hearing was held to determine the distribution of the marital assets.

During their testimony, Mr. and Ms. Graves provided conflicting accounts, both of questionable propriety and often confusing, regarding the purchase and ownership of the marital home. The confusion was exacerbated by the documentary evidence, or lack thereof. The original 1997 deed to the marital home was not entered into evidence by either party. Rather, the parties stipulated to the admission of two deeds notarized a year later on the same day, March 23, 1998, by the same notary. These deeds revealed thatCalvin Jones, Ms. Graves‟s father, had some connection to the property.

One of the 1998 deeds stated that Ms. Graves and Mr. Jones granted the marital home to Mr. and Ms. Graves as tenants by the entirety; this deed was not recorded. The other 1998 deed stated that Mr. and Ms. Graves granted the marital home to Ms. Graves and Mr. Jones as joint tenants; this deed was recorded. The parties provided different explanations for the existence of these two deeds.

Ms. Graves testified that she and her father had initially bought the marital home together in 1997. She explained that the first 1998 deed was executed to briefly place the marital home in her and Mr. Graves‟s name in order to help Mr. Graves secure a loan, and that the second 1998 deed was then executed to transfer title back to her and her father. Ms. Graves also testified that she and her father had paid the mortgage on the marital home for the duration of the marriage. In addition, she presented a 2001 bill for unpaid property taxes on the marital home from the District addressed to her and Mr. Jones and a homeowner‟s policy naming her and Mr. Jones as the owners of that property. Mr. Graves did not contest this evidence, although he had a different explanation as to why Mr. Jones was nominally connected to the property.

Mr. Graves testified that Mr. Jones had co-signed with Ms. Graves for a Federal Housing Administration loan to purchase and renovate the property in 1997 when Mr. Graves could not because he had already obtained one such loan and was not eligible for a second. He suggested that he had somehow subsequently assumed Mr. Jones‟s legal title to the property, although he never clearly explained how this occurred. And he asserted that the 1998 deeds were executed in the opposite sequence - that the initial 1998 conveyance was from Ms. Graves and him to Ms. Graves and her father to help the married couple refinance the mortgage after the house was renovated, and that the final 1998 conveyance was to him and Ms. Graves.*fn2

Mr. Jones was not called to testify, but both parties were questioned about his absence. On cross-examination, counsel for Mr. Graves asked Ms. Graves to explain why she had not called her father to corroborate her testimony, and she explained that she did not want her father and Mr. Graves "to have animosity between the two of them." Nothing in the record indicates that Mr. Jones had been given notice of the proceedings.

Sorting through the conflicting testimony, the trial court found that "the last conveyance of the marital home was from [Ms. Graves] and [Mr. Graves] to [Ms. Graves] and her father." The court noted that "the last recorded deed on the property is in [Ms. Graves‟s] name and her father‟s name. She and her father helped [Mr. Graves] to obtain a loan by putting his name on the deed before [Mr. Graves] transferred his interest in the property to [Ms. Graves‟s] father." Ms. Graves does not challenge this finding on appeal.*fn3

Although it determined that Mr. Jones, and not Mr. Graves, held legal title to the marital home as a co-tenant with Ms. Graves, the court found that Mr. Graves "had an equitable interest in the marital home . . . because he provided most of the financial resources to pay the mortgage and maintenance on said property." The trial court then determined that Mr. and Ms. Graves each were entitled to an equal, 50% interest in the house. To permit the divorcing couple to realize the benefit of that interest, the court ordered them to select an appraiser and to execute the necessary papers to sell the marital home by September 1, 2011.*fn4 In the alternative, the court ordered that "one party shall pay his or her equitable interest in the property, 50%, of the now current appraised value of the property to the other party no later than October 1, 2011, if ...

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