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Claxton v. Reeves

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District

June 17, 2019

DAVI CLAXTON, Petitioner-Appellant and Cross-Appellee,
JODIL. REEVES, Successor Executor and Personal Representative for Gary L. Claxton, Deceased, Defendant-Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

          Summary Rule 23 order filed May 29, 2019

          Motion to publish granted June 17, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 14-D-315, Honorable Maureen D. Schuette, Judge, presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Curtis L. Blood, Kelly A. Stephan.

          Attorney for Appellee: Clifford C. Emons, Emons Law Office, West Homer Adams Parkway, P.O.

          WELCH JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Chapman and Barberis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          WELCH JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 The petitioner, Davi Claxton (Davi), appeals the judgment of the circuit court of Madison County granting Gary L. Claxton's (Gary) request to bifurcate the parties' dissolution of marriage proceedings and immediately dissolving their marriage while reserving ruling on the disposition of the marital estate. She argues the circuit court abused its discretion in finding that appropriate circumstances for entering a bifurcated judgment existed. James Pepper, Gary's former personal representative and executor of his estate, filed a cross-appeal from the circuit court's disposition of the marital estate. Jodi L. Reeves, Gary's current personal representative and successor executor of his estate, has filed a motion to withdraw the cross-appeal and a confession of error. For the following reasons, this court grants Reeves's motion to withdraw the cross-appeal and we reverse the circuit court's judgment.

         ¶ 2 Gary and Davi married in 1996. No children were born to the marriage. Gary adopted Davi's son, Garrod, who was an adult at the time of the proceedings at issue. Prior to the marriage Gary and Davi signed an antenuptial agreement which provided, inter alia, that each party gave up all claims to the other's retirement benefits and accounts. On April 21, 2014, Davi filed a petition seeking a judgment of legal separation and separate maintenance. Gary filed an answer and a counterpetition for dissolution of marriage, and a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking a declaration that the antenuptial agreement was valid and binding.

         ¶ 3 Prior to trial both parties filed position statements with the court. In her position statement, Davi stated that Gary's attorney had indicated on numerous occasions that Gary's health was "precarious" and that he "could pass away at any moment."

         ¶4 Trial commenced on January 26, 2017. The court first heard testimony and argument concerning the validity of the antenuptial agreement. Davi argued that the agreement was unconscionable because she had no retirement benefits of her own and that while she would receive part of Gary's firefighter's pension if he died while they were married, she would get nothing if he died after they were divorced. The court found the antenuptial agreement to be valid and enforceable.

         ¶5 The court then proceeded on Gary's counterpetition for dissolution of marriage. Gary testified that he had been an Alton firefighter from 1978 to 2013. He retired in 2013 and began receiving a pension. Regarding his health, Gary testified that he had been sick for a while but that he got really sick "over 4th of July weekend," that he had been hospitalized in December of 2015, and that he had "substantial problems" with his health in the fall of 2016. At the conclusion of his testimony Gary sought a judgment of dissolution based on the testimony provided and the court's prior determination that the antenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable. Davi objected, arguing that a dissolution at that time would be detrimental to her "given the precariousness of the health of the respondent" and the fact that all of the property had not been divided. The court declined to enter a judgment of dissolution at that time and continued the proceedings until March 6, 2017.

         ¶ 6 On February 28, 2017, Davi filed a motion to continue, arguing that she needed more time to review the voluminous discovery materials she had recently received, and that she was concerned about Gary's ability to testify as it had come to her attention that he had been hospitalized for renal failure. At the March 6, 2017, hearing, Davi argued that a continuance was necessary because she had learned during the first day of trial that Gary had accounts with four different banks which had not been previously disclosed, and that subpoenas of those records had produced 3000 to 4000 documents. Gary opposed the continuance, arguing that Davi was already aware of this information and because of his "ill health." Based on the need to move expeditiously because of Gary's "health issues," the court continued the matter until March 20, 2017.

         ¶ 7 At the March 20, 2017, hearing, Davi testified that "after Gary was diagnosed with his illness he decided that he was terminally ill." She believed he had been diagnosed in 2011. She testified that "[Gary] just knew that the doctor said, you have three to five years." Trial continued on March 31, 2017. Gary was not present. His attorney explained that Gary was in the hospital undergoing testing for a liver transplant. Davi objected to Gary's absence and the court elected to proceed while reserving ruling on whether Gary should be required to attend. At the conclusion of the trial the court ordered the parties to prepare and submit proposed written ...

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