COA: Death of ex-spouse does not end trial court’s jurisdiction

The Court of Appeals of Indiana is allowing a woman to pursue the quitclaim deed her former husband had promised after the trial court stopped the proceeding and concluded it no longer had jurisdiction to address the matter because the ex-husband died.

Jacqueline Kristen Dennis (Darbo) divorced her husband Gary Clyde Dennis in 2007. As part of the dissolution, the spouses agreed that Darbo would pay Dennis $19,921.50 so she could have sole possession of their home. Once the money was received, Dennis was to execute a quitclaim deed transferring his interest in the residence to Darbo.

However, after she paid, he delayed and then he died. Darbo sought to enforce the agreement by filing a petition to appoint commissioner or to declare lien satisfied and released.

Hamilton Superior Court denied the ex-wife’s petition, pointing to caselaw and holding when a one of the spouses in a divorce proceeding dies, the trial court no longer has jurisdiction.

The Court of Appeals reversed in Jacqueline Kristen Dennis (Darbo) v. Gary Clyde Dennis, 22A-DR-345,  finding the lower court “understandably – but mistakenly” relied on precedent to rule against the ex-wife.

After highlighting caselaw and state statute that enables the trial court to grant the petition, the appellate panel turned to the exception the ex-wife relied upon from Edwards v. Edwards, 80 N.E.2d 939 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017).

There, the wife secured a restraining order to prohibit the husband from disposing of his retirement benefits and the trial court ordered the wife’s attorney to prepare the paperwork for the division of the funds. The husband died the next day, but the Court of Appeals found the trial court retained “continuing jurisdiction to reexamine a property settlement where the nature of the examination is to seek clarification of a prior order.”

Writing for the court in the present case, Judge Derek Molter concluded, “The petition at issue here is analogous to the proceedings in Edwards because Wife merely seeks to enforce the agreed upon property settlement, which falls within the dissolution court’s continuing jurisdiction ‘to complete the implementation of the division of property as ordered in the final decree.’”

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