Knox v. Knox (In re Knox)

Docket NumberF081092
Decision Date09 September 2022
Citation83 Cal.App.5th 15,299 Cal.Rptr.3d 276
Parties IN RE the MARRIAGE OF Dawn Bear KNOX and Blair Becker Knox. Dawn Bear Knox, Appellant, v. Blair Becker Knox, Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Law Offices of Ira L. Stoker and Ira L. Stocker, for Appellant.

Law Offices of Edward J. Thomas, Edward J. Thomas, Bakersfield, and Paul R. Domen, for Respondent.

FRANSON, J.

This appeal presents a question of law about pendente lite attorney fees under Family Code section 20301 that has not been addressed in a published opinion. The question is whether the family court violated the statute by not ruling on appellant Dawn Bear Knox's request for pendente lite attorney fees. As described below, a violation occurred because section 2030 requires a reasonably prompt ruling on a request for pendente lite attorney fees.

The failure to rule was prejudicial because self-represented Dawn bungled a key issue during the trial—namely, whether a residence acquired by respondent Blair Becker Knox when he was single was transmuted to community property when he executed a grant deed (1) transferring the residence from himself to "Blair B. Knox and Dawn Raquel Bear Knox, husband and wife as joint tenants" and (2) stating the transfer was a bona fide gift. Dawn attached a copy of the recorded deed to a supplemental trial brief, but she did not have it marked as an exhibit and did not offer it into evidence. This omission had dire consequences for Dawn because section 852, subdivision (a), states a transmutation cannot occur without a written, unambiguous expression of intent to transfer an interest in the property. Because the grant deed was not admitted into evidence, the family court found the separate property character of the residence was not altered even though Blair acknowledged the change in title during his testimony.

If Dawn had been represented by counsel, it is reasonably probable that the grant deed would have been offered and admitted into evidence and that she would have prevailed on the transmutation issue. Consequently, the question becomes whether a family court error was a cause of Dawn's lack of legal representation at trial. Section 2030 provides that family courts "shall ensure that each party has access to legal representation, including access early in the proceedings ," by awarding pendente lite attorney fees when certain statutory conditions are met. ( § 2030, subd. (a)(1), italics added.) We interpret the phrase "shall ensure" to mean family courts have a mandatory obligation to order a party to pay attorney fees of the other party when the circumstances specified in the statute exist. In addition, the reference to "access early in the proceedings" and other statutory text means family courts must not unreasonably delay their ruling on a request for pendente lite attorney fees.

Here, Dawn's request for pendente lite attorney fees was made early in the marriage dissolution proceedings and had been pending for over a year when the trial started. By that time, Dawn was unemployed and representing herself. Nonetheless, her request for pendente lite attorney fees was never ruled on by the family court. Instead, the court waited until after the trial to address attorney fees in its final judgment of reserved issues. At a minimum, the failure to hear and take the request under submission on the first day of trial constituted an unreasonable delay that violated section 2030.2 Furthermore, the erroneous failure to rule was not rendered harmless by any deficiencies in Dawn's request because a reasonably prompt denial would have given Dawn an opportunity to cure the defects.

Therefore, the judgment is reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings.

FACTS

Dawn and Blair married in June 2005 and legally separated in October 2017. The marriage lasted 12 years and four months. There were no minor children. The issues requiring litigation were almost entirely financial.

In October 2016, Blair started working as an executive officer for the Kern Local Agency Formation Commission. His gross monthly compensation was approximately $11,000. Before Dawn was laid off in May 2019, she was employed as an executive assistance by Optimal Healthcare Services, Inc. Her gross monthly income was approximately $6,000.

Most of the issues involving the division of the couple's assets and liabilities are not material to the procedural issue that resolves this appeal. However, issues related to the family residences are relevant to Dawn's showing of prejudice from the failure to rule on her request for pendente lite attorney fees. Consequently, we provide a brief history of those residences.

The parties' first home after their marriage was a house on Ottawa Court in Bakersfield. Blair had purchased it in September 1995 for $125,000 and had taken title in his name as a single person. The parties stipulated orally at trial "that on the date of marriage there w[ere] no encumbrances on the Ottawa house."3 The parties disputed how the Ottawa Court residence came to be debt free. Dawn alleged that $40,000 from the sale of her condominium was used to pay off the mortgage on the residence. Blair denies such a payment occurred. When Blair was asked during trial if it was true that after the Ottawa Court residence was paid off, he had the grant deed changed into both of their names as husband and wife, Blair answered: "I don't remember how – who initiated changing it, but it was changed to joint names." Later, Blair's attorney offered to stipulate that all the real properties "were held in joint names." The grant deed, which was not admitted into evidence, is described later in this opinion.

In 2008, the Ottawa Court residence sold for $258,000. Around that time, the couple bought a house in Sacramento for $348,000 and $240,000 of the Ottawa Court sale proceeds was applied towards the purchase price. Approximately $108,000 of the purchase price was financed and subsequently paid off with $30,502 of community property and $77,913.83 from Blair's separate property—money he received from selling some corporate shares.

In February 2014, the couple purchased the third and final marital residence, a house on Monterey Beach Drive in Bakersfield, for $375,000. The couple paid a $5,000 deposit toward the purchase with community property funds, and the rest of the purchase price came from a bridge loan from Blair's mother. In May 2014, the Sacramento house was sold for $373,000 and the money deposited into a Morgan Stanley account. The couple repaid Blair's mother $380,000 for the bridge loan from the Morgan Stanley account. The characterization and value of the community property interest in the Monterey Beach Drive residence was an issue submitted to the court. The resolution of that issue required the court to address Dawn's contention that the Ottawa Court residence had been transmuted into community property.

SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS

In January 2018, Dawn filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. She represented herself and filed a declaration stating that she had contracted with a registered legal document assistant to help prepare the petition and had paid $599 for the assistance. In April 2018, an attorney representing Blair filed Blair's response to the petition.

On May 7, 2018, Dawn's first attorney, Mellanie Marshall Rapozo, substituted in as counsel. On May 10, 2018, Rapozo filed Dawn's first request for order for temporary spousal support, for pendente lite attorney fees and costs, and for sale of the family residence. The hearing on the request for order was set for June 13, 2018. The hearing was continued many times. The continuances and related procedural history are described in part I.D. of this opinion.

In August 2018, Attorney Robert F. Carbone replaced Rapozo as Dawn's attorney. In March 2019, Carbone substituted out of the case and Dawn began representing herself.

The trial was held on May 23, 2019, July 11, 2019, and July 22, 2019. In August 2019, the parties submitted written final arguments. In September 2019, the family court entered a judgment of dissolution, restoring the parties to the status of single persons and restoring Dawn's former name. Neither party appealed from the judgment of dissolution.

On November 4, 2019, the family court filed its ruling on the reserved issues. In April 2020, Dawn retained an attorney. On April 30, 2020, that attorney filed a substitution of attorney and a notice of appeal from the November 2019 ruling. This court informed Dawn that the ruling was not an appealable order or judgment. In February 2021, the family court filed a judgment on reserved issues. This appeal is treated as having been taken from that judgment.

The judgment awarded Blair the marital residence on Monterey Beach Drive and determined 88 percent of the value of the home ($359,920) was Blair's separate property and the remaining 12 percent of the value ($49,080) was community property. In reaching this conclusion, the family court addressed and rejected Dawn's theories for why the Ottawa Court residence was not entirely Blair's separate property. The first theory was Dawn's allegation that $40,000 from the sale of her condominium was used to pay off the loan against that residence. The second theory alleged Blair transferred the residence to the community when he changed title into both their names as joint tenants. The family court rejected Dawn's argument that Blair's changing the title of the Ottawa Court residence effected a transmutation by stating: "The characterization of the Ottawa Court property was not changed by changing the title, without a separate written instrument specifically transmuting the character of the property."

The judgment awarded Dawn 12 months of spousal support, which started on June 1, 2019, at $1,000 per month and was reduced to $500 per month on December 1, 2019. The judgment also addressed the subject of attorney fees and costs:

"[Dawn] includes in her trial brief a
...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1 cases
  • Mathur v. Mathur
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 25 Agosto 2023
    ... ... applicable legal criteria. [Citations.]" ( In re ... Marriage of Knox (2022) 83 Cal.App.5th 15, 25.) ...          When ... engaging in substantial ... ...

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT