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Northington v. Northington

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

November 9, 2017

Tahnya B. Northington
v.
David S. Northington

         Appeal from Tuscaloosa Circuit Court (DR-15-900590)

          THOMPSON, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Tahnya B. Northington ("the wife") appeals from a judgment of the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court ("the trial court") that, among other things, upheld the validity of a postnuptial agreement ("the agreement") she had entered into with David S. Northington ("the husband").

         The only issue presented on appeal in this matter is whether the trial court erred in determining that the agreement was valid and enforceable. The evidence relevant to that issue indicated the following. The parties married in March 1995. Two children were born during the marriage; the wife had a child from a previous marriage, but the husband helped rear that child as his own. In late March 2012, the husband discovered that the wife was engaged in an extramarital affair. The wife of the man with whom the wife in this case was having the affair notified the husband. On April 2 or 3, 2012, the husband confronted the wife, who admitted that she had engaged in a physical sexual affair with the man, who lived on the West Coast. The wife conceded that she had met the man online and had engaged in "phone sex" and "Skype sex, " i.e., via computer using a web camera, with him before the man traveled to Alabama. The wife and the man met in Birmingham and carried out a physical affair.

         When the husband confronted the wife, he gave her the option of divorcing or reconciling, with the condition that, if she chose reconciliation, she would sign a postnuptial agreement. The wife chose reconciliation, and the parties began marriage counseling. The parties also spent a considerable time--more than two years--crafting the agreement. The wife consulted with three attorneys during the course of negotiations and testified that she had made changes to various drafts of the agreement before executing it. The wife signed the agreement on June 23, 2014; the husband signed it on June 25, 2014. On December 8, 2015, the husband filed a complaint for a divorce in the trial court. The wife answered and filed a counterclaim alleging that the agreement was not fair or equitable and that it was obtained in a fraudulent manner because, she said, in making the agreement, the husband had withheld from her the value of his assets. The trial court held a bifurcated trial so that it could first determine the enforceability of the agreement.

         There is no dispute that the wife was aware of the 14 parcels of real estate the husband claimed in the agreement as part of his separate estate. One of those parcels was a condominium in Gulf Shores that had been purchased from her grandfather's estate. The condominium was used for family vacations, and the wife was aware that it was also used as rental property. All of the other real estate was located in the Tuscaloosa/Northport area. The wife was also aware of Bama Exterminating Co., Inc. ("Bama Exterminating"), a family-owned business started by the husband's grandfather, which the parties treated as an asset of the husband.

         In listing the real estate that he was claiming as his separate estate, the husband provided the wife with the cost of the individual parcels of real estate and the debt on those parcels. For example, the husband listed the cost of the Gulf Shores condominium as $190, 000 and the debt on that condominium as $401, 316. In total, the list of real estate the husband claimed, which was attached to the agreement as "Exhibit A, " indicated that the total "cost" of the 14 parcels of real estate was $1, 680, 913 and that the total debt on those parcels was $1, 356, 763. Therefore, according to the information the husband provided to the wife regarding the difference between the cost and the debt of the 14 parcels of real estate, the husband had $324, 150 in total equity in the parcels.[1]

         Despite the wife's repeated requests, whether she made the request or the request was made through her attorney, the husband did not provide the wife with the value of the individual parcels of real estate or the equity he had in any of the real estate. In financial statements the husband provided to various banks during the time the agreement was being negotiated, however, the husband represented that the 14 parcels of real estate had a total fair market value of $4, 455, 000, and a total debt of $2, 864, 103, for a total equity of $1, 590, 897.

         Similarly, Exhibit A listed several businesses in which the husband had an interest. The only business the wife discusses in her appellate brief is Bama Exterminating. As he had with the real estate, the husband showed that Bama Exterminating had "costs" of "$294, 431 (Fixed Assets)" and debt of "$265, 171 (Liabilities), " leaving a net "value" of $29, 260. However, the husband's "personal financial statements" indicated that Bama Exterminating had a value of $1, 823, 482. The difference in the "value" of Bama Exterminating as shown in Exhibit A and on financial statements created when the parties were negotiating the agreement is $1, 794, 222.

         The wife testified that, during their negotiations, the husband provided her with what became Exhibit A, but he did not provide her with any financial statements. "Exhibit B, " attached to the agreement, listed the wife's property. At the trial, the husband acknowledged that the wife and her attorney had at various times asked him for the market value of his assets. He said that he did not give her his opinion as to the value of his assets because, he said, he did not want to give her an inaccurate or subjective opinion. The husband also testified that he did not believe he had an obligation to provide the wife with the values she requested. Instead, the husband said, he suggested methods by which the wife could determine the value of the real estate, including talking to family members who worked in the real-estate or construction business; working with the Tuscaloosa County tax assessor, who was a personal friend, to obtain tax-assessed values of the real property in the Tuscaloosa/Northport area from the Tuscaloosa County tax assessor's office; or doing Internet research to obtain the values of the real property.

         The wife testified that, before signing the agreement, she was aware of the real estate the husband owned and had seen most of the properties and the buildings and structures on them. She had taken vacations at the Gulf Shores condominium and had helped to decorate it.

         The wife also testified that she never placed Bama Exterminating on the list of assets she wanted. She explained that she "was trying to be fair, that [she] wasn't trying to take [the husband's] company, his family company away from him." She said that one of her attorneys explained that, even if she did not want Bama Exterminating, it could be used in negotiations. However, the wife said, she never made a claim for Bama Exterminating or included it in any counterproposals she made to the husband.

         The wife, who holds a bachelor's degree in nursing, testified that her attorney was present when she executed the agreement. She said that she did not recall her attorney at that time going over all of the details of the agreement with her, but, she said, she did not give the attorney "any impression" that she did not understand it. She also testified that, although she executed the agreement with the knowledge that it stated that she "fully understood the nature and extent" of the husband's estate and knew its approximate value, "I signed this, I really didn't understand it, but I did sign it." She said that she felt like she did not have a choice regarding whether to sign it, because, she said, the husband had told her that, if she did not sign the agreement, they "would go to war and that he would destroy me."

         After the trial on the issue of the validity and enforceability of the agreement, the trial court entered a judgment concluding that the agreement was due to be enforced as written. After the final divorce judgment addressing all remaining issues was entered on February 6, 2017, the wife filed a timely notice of appeal to this court.

         On appeal, the wife contends that, although the facts were generally not disputed, the trial court ...


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