Raleigh Levon Hill, Sr.
Beverly Collier Hill
Appeal from Madison Circuit Court (DR-11-1392)
Raleigh Levon Hill, Sr. ("the husband"), appeals from a judgment of the Madison Circuit Court ("the trial court") divorcing him and Beverly Collier Hill ("the wife") (1) insofar as that judgment awarded the wife a property settlement in the amount of $162, 623.86, which, the trial court found, represented one-half of the husband's net winnings from a lottery and (2) insofar as it awarded the wife one-half of the value of the husband's retirement account. We affirm.
In September 2011, approximately 23 years after the husband had left her and the parties' three children on July 29, 1988, the wife sued the husband for (1) a divorce on the ground of abandonment and incompatibility, (2) a property settlement, and (3) a share of the husband's retirement account. Also in September 2011, the trial court entered its standing pendente lite order, which, among other things, ordered the parties to preserve their assets in the form in which they existed upon the entry of the pendente lite order. The husband was served with process on October 1, 2011. Answering, the husband asserted (1) that he had divorced the wife in 2002 by means of a purported divorce judgment he had procured over the Internet from a Mexican court ("the purported Mexican divorce"), which, he said, deprived the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction over the wife's action, and (2) that the wife's claims were barred by the doctrines of equitable estoppel and laches.
In June 2013, the trial court held a bench trial at which it received evidence ore tenus. The issues tried were (1) whether the purported Mexican divorce was valid, (2) whether the wife was entitled to a share of the assets accumulated by the husband after July 29, 1988, and (3) whether the wife was entitled to a share of the husband's retirement account.
After the trial, the parties submitted posttrial briefs. In her posttrial brief, the wife asserted that the purported Mexican divorce was void because, she said, the husband had procured it through fraud by misrepresenting to the Mexican court that he and the wife had resided in Mexico and because, she said, the husband had neither notified her that he was seeking that divorce nor served her with process. She also asserted that she was entitled to a share of the assets the husband had accumulated after July 29, 1988, and that she was entitled to a share of his retirement account. In his posttrial brief, the husband conceded that the purported Mexican divorce judgment was invalid, that the parties were still married, and that the trial court had jurisdiction over the wife's action. However, he asserted that the wife was estopped from claiming any portion of the assets he had accumulated after July 29, 1988, and any portion of his retirement account because, he said, both parties had led separate lives since July 29, 1988, and the wife had indicated on her income-tax returns and other documents filed since July 29, 1988, that she was single.
In September 2013, the trial court entered a judgment that determined that the purported Mexican divorce was void; determined that the trial court had jurisdiction over the wife's action; divorced the parties on the ground of incompatibility; found that money the husband had won in the North Carolina Educational Lottery ("the lottery") in 2011 constituted marital property; awarded the wife a property settlement in the amount of "$162, 623.86, representing one-half of [the husband's] after-tax lottery winnings"; and awarded the wife one-half of the value of the husband's retirement account. The husband timely filed a postjudgment motion challenging the judgment insofar as it awarded the wife a property settlement and one-half of the value of his retirement account. The trial court did not rule on the husband's postjudgment motion within 90 days after it was filed; consequently, that motion was denied by operation of law pursuant to Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P., in January 2014. The husband then timely appealed to this court.
Because the trial court's judgment was based on evidence the trial court received ore tenus at a bench trial, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, i.e., the wife. See, e.g., Lindsey v. Aldridge, 104 So.3d 208, 215 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012) (holding that, in reviewing a judgment based on evidence received ore tenus, an appellate court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party). Viewed in that manner, the evidence tended to prove the following pertinent facts.
In November 1984, when she was 17 years old, the wife gave birth to the parties' oldest child. The parties married in January 1985, while the wife was still 17 and the husband was 20. The parties had a second child in January 1987 and a third one in January 1988. On the morning of July 29, 1988, the husband left the parties' apartment and never returned. Before leaving, the husband had never told the wife that he was contemplating leaving. After the husband left, the wife did not hear from him until he telephoned her several weeks later and informed her that he had gone to Ohio to find a better job. The husband took the parties' only automobile when he left. By 1991, the husband had moved to North Carolina, where he was still living when this action was tried. Although the husband paid child support after the State of Alabama brought a child-support action against him on behalf of the wife in 1991, he never paid the wife any spousal support after July 29, 1988.
After the husband left on July 29, 1988, the parties had very little contact, and they never lived together again. The husband never discussed the subject of a divorce with the wife and never served her with process in a divorce action commenced by him.
In 1999, the husband met a woman named Erin Cullen and told her that he was not married. The husband and Cullen began living together shortly after they met. The husband and Cullen subsequently became engaged, and, approximately two weeks before their wedding in 2002, the husband informed Cullen that he could not find any record of his divorce from the wife. The husband and Cullen then found a site on the Internet indicating that a divorce could be obtained in three days from a Mexican court. Although neither the husband nor the wife had ever lived in Mexico, Cullen and the husband sat in front of their computer while Cullen typed information supplied by the husband on an Internet application for a Mexican judgment divorcing the husband and the wife. The husband submitted the application on the Internet without ever notifying the wife that he was seeking a divorce or serving her with process. The husband received the purported Mexican divorce judgment in the mail approximately three days after he had submitted his application on the Internet. The wife did not learn of the purported Mexican divorce judgment until she commenced the present divorce action. After the husband received the purported Mexican divorce, the husband and Cullen had a wedding ceremony.
Sometime before February 15, 2011, the husband purchased a ticket to participate in the lottery and, on February 15, 2011, won $1, 000, 000 in the lottery. The husband split the $1, 000, 000 with Cullen, and they each received a check for one-half of the net proceeds after deduction of taxes. The check the husband received was in the amount of $325, 247.73. He deposited that check into his checking account in August 2011. Subsequently, on October 1, 2011, he was served with process in the present action. When he was served with process, the trial court had already entered its standing pendente lite order requiring the parties to preserve their assets in the form they were in when that order was entered. Despite that provision of the standing pendente ...