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What is the acceptance of benefits doctrine?

If you and your spouse contemplate getting a California divorce, make sure you thoroughly understand any property settlement agreement you enter into. You may find it difficult to modify it after your divorce, particularly if you have already received some benefits from it prior to your attempt to modify.

As reported by FindLaw, the acceptance of benefits doctrine holds that you cannot challenge any court judgment, including a written divorce decree incorporating a property settlement agreement, once you accept benefits from this judgment.

Recent Texas Supreme Court case

This doctrine and its meaning recently came before the Texas Supreme Court in the case of Kramer v. Kastleman. Here the two parties accumulated approximately $30 million worth of marital assets during their nine-year marriage. They entered into a property settlement agreement which the court approved when it verbally granted their divorce. It did not, however, issue a written divorce decree until 12 months later.

Ms. Kramer tried to rescind the agreement during this interim period, claiming that Mr. Kastleman had obtained her signature on it by fraud. He not only denied her allegations, but alleged that during the year of its existence, Ms. Kramer accepted benefits from the property settmement agreement, including a monthly income of $20,000 from one of the properties awarded to her per the agreement.

Both the trial court and the appellate court sided with Mr. Kastleman, agreeing that Ms. Kramer could not challenge the property settlement agreement based on the acceptance of benefits doctrine. When Mr. Kastleman appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, however, it reversed the lower courts' decrees, stating that the doctrine did not apply in this case due to the trial court's failure to issue a written divorce decree at the time it gave its verbal decree. In addition, the Court held that the evidence showed that Ms. Kramer had not clearly intended to benefit from the property settlement agreement.

Admittedly, this was a Texas case and you live in California. Nevertheless, you would do well to keep the acceptance of benefits doctrine in mind when accepting any benefits from a property settlement agreement you intend to challenge in court.

This is general educational information and not intended to provide legal advice.

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