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Braswell v. Benton

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 21, 2019

BENTON et al.

          BARNES, P. J., MERCIER and BROWN, JJ.

          Brown, Judge.

         Carin Braswell, as administratrix of the Estate of Floyd Braswell, Sonny Braswell, and Denver Braswell ("Defendants") appeal the superior court's partial denial of their amended motion to amend judgment and motion for new trial following a bench trial. For the reasons explained below, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

         "On appellate review of a bench trial, the factual findings shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Rivers v. Revington Glen Investments, 346 Ga.App. 440 (816 S.E.2d 406) (2018). See also OCGA § 9-11-52 (a). "The clearly erroneous test is the any evidence rule. If there is any evidence to support the findings of fact by a trial court sitting without a jury, then the appellate court affirms without interference with or disturbing such factfindings." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) City Heights Condo. Assn. v. Bombara, 337 Ga.App. 679 (788 S.E.2d 563) (2016). And "[w]e construe the evidence in favor of the judgment." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Id.

         So viewed, the record shows that the current case involves a dispute amongst relatives over the distribution of Florel Braswell's estate. Florel died in 2003, and her three children, Floyd Braswell, William Braswell, and Beth Benton, were named co-executors of her will. To each child, Florel bequeathed a tract of real property. Realizing that the properties would not be equal in value, Florel's will directed the executors to have her land surveyed and appraised and "to allocate any stock, cash and (if necessary) other assets to be distributed so that each heir's share will be equal, taking into account the value of the real property devised." Florel left the largest tract of land, on which sat her home, to Floyd. All the rest, residue, and remainder of Florel's property was devised to her three children.

         Following their mother's death, Floyd, William, and Beth amicably worked together to divide her estate and achieve the intent of her will. An appraisal of the three tracts of land revealed that Floyd's tract was worth substantially more than those belonging to William and Beth. In addition, all of Florel's personal property was located in the house now owned by Floyd. Accordingly, the siblings devised a system whereby they would meet at Florel's house and take turns picking out things they wanted.

         In 2013, Floyd died and his wife, Carin Braswell, was appointed administratrix of his estate. At the time of Floyd's death, Carin was unfamiliar with the status of Florel's estate administration. She met with Beth and William to discuss what remained to be done, and they agreed to divide the remaining property left in Florel's house. At some point after this meeting, Carin learned that Beth and William had calculated that Floyd's estate owed each of them more than $20, 000 to equalize the estate assets among them. At this point, the parties began communicating through their attorneys.

         William and Beth requested access to Florel's house in order to inventory and divide the remaining estate property. Carin requested an accounting of Florel's estate as well as documentation supporting William and Beth's assertion that Floyd's estate owed them money. Beth provided a handwritten accounting in June 2013, reflecting the appraised value of each child's tract of land, including the value of timber thereon.[1] After further questioning, Beth provided a revised accounting in September 2013, which took into account Floyd's $10, 000 payment of estate taxes as well as various stock and cash distributions to William and Beth.[2] Around this time, the parties met at Florel's house to inventory the remaining estate property, but nothing was divided.

         In August 2014, after Carin's attorney raised more concerns and questions, William and Beth, through their attorney, provided a third accounting. The third and final accounting reflected that Floyd's estate would need to pay Beth and William each $2, 824.29 to equalize the estate assets. After hearing nothing from Carin and her attorney and still unable to divide the rest of Florel's personal property in the house, William and Beth, individually and as co-executors of Florel's estate, ("Plaintiffs") filed a "Complaint for Conversion and Damages" in superior court, alleging that Carin, as administrator of Floyd's estate, Denver Braswell, Sonny Braswell, and Lori Tyson[3] were in possession of property belonging to William and Beth, individually, and property belonging to Florel's estate. Defendants counterclaimed for an accounting of Florel's estate.[4]

         When Plaintiffs filed their complaint, they attached the final version of Florel's will, which Defendants had not previously seen. This final version contained a provision giving Floyd and Beth each a one-fourth share in the proceeds from timber planted on William's inherited tract of land.[5] Defendants additionally learned that Floyd and Beth, in 2005, had executed releases of their interests in the timber proceeds from William's tract.

         Following a bench trial, [6] the superior court entered a final order, adopting and approving Beth's June 19, 2013 accounting of Florel's estate. The court awarded all personal property in accordance with Plaintiffs' three inventories.[7] However, the court excluded nine items from the list of property belonging to Florel's estate because Carin identified these items as belonging to Floyd. The court ordered Floyd's estate, William, and Beth's estate to divide the remaining personal property of Florel's estate by lottery draw. The superior court also ordered William to reimburse Florel's estate for the attorney fees paid during a separate magistrate court case.

         Defendants subsequently filed a motion to amend judgment and motion for new trial. Plaintiffs then filed a motion for costs and attorney fees pursuant to OCGA §§ 9-15-1 and 13-6-11. After retaining new counsel, Defendants filed an amended motion to amend judgment and motion for new trial. In their amended motion, Defendants asked the superior court to amend its judgment to approve the most recent accounting by Beth from August 2014, rather than the June 19, 2013 accounting identified in its order. However, Defendants still disputed that the August 2014 accounting was correct because it did not account for the timber proceeds from William's inherited tract. Defendants further asked the superior court to order Plaintiffs to reimburse Florel's estate for the portion of their legal fees incurred by bringing the action in their individual capacities for property not part of Florel's estate. Finally, Defendants argued that some of the property awarded by the superior court to William and Beth, individually, belongs to Florel's estate based on testimony presented at trial.

         The superior court held a joint hearing on Plaintiffs' motion for costs and attorney fees and Defendants' amended motion to amend judgment and motion for new trial. During the hearing, all parties agreed that the court should amend its judgment to approve the August 2014 accounting rather than the June 19, 2013 accounting. At the close of the hearing, counsel for Plaintiffs stated that to the extent the superior court was inclined to order Plaintiffs to reimburse Florel's estate fees for their individual attorney fees, counsel stipulated that $5, 000 would adequately compensate for the time spent on their individual claims.

         In denying the motion for new trial, the superior court found, based on William's trial testimony, that Floyd and Beth "both made the decision to give up any such timber rights on [William's] inherited land." The superior court further found that the evidence in the case supported its award of personal property. Finally, the court ordered William and Beth's estate to reimburse Florel's estate $1, 500 each in attorney fees for their individual claims and denied ...

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