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Dillard v. Schilke

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 8, 2019


          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Hodges, Judge.

         Following the death of Willie Dillard ("Willie"), both parties to this appeal, Veleria Dillard ("Veleria") and Bridgitte Schilke (a/k/a Bridgitte Dillard) ("Bridgitte"), claimed to be his legal surviving spouse. It is undisputed that Veleria was Willie's first wife, and she petitioned to be declared Willie's lawful wife at the time of his death and for Willie's subsequent marriage to Bridgitte to be declared invalid. Bridgitte counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment recognizing her as Willie's lawful surviving spouse. The trial court denied Veleria's motion for summary judgment on her petition, and a jury determined that Bridgitte was Willie's surviving spouse. Veleria now appeals, contending that (1) the trial court erred in denying her motion for summary judgment; (2) the jury's verdict is against the preponderance of the evidence; and (3) the jury's verdict is not supported by the evidence. For the reasons that follow, we find the evidence sufficient to support the jury's verdict and affirm.

         "There is a presumption in favor of the validity of verdicts. And after rendition of a verdict, all the evidence and every presumption and inference arising therefrom, must be construed most favorably towards upholding the verdict." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Wiley, 220 Ga.App. 442, 443 (2) (469 S.E.2d 302) (1996).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that Willie and Veleria married on December 25, 1969 in Mississippi and had two children. In 1976, Willie left the marital home. Around June of 1979, Veleria was served with divorce papers and purportedly told that if she did nothing, she would be divorced in 10 days. In 1980, Willie submitted a sworn statement to the United States Army wherein he attested that he petitioned for a dissolution of his marriage to Veleria in August 1979 and was at that time legally separated from her.

         In 1981, believing herself to be divorced from Willie, Veleria married a man named Herman Brown. Veleria's marriage license indicates that she was divorced from Willie in December 1979. In either 1983 or 1984, however, Veleria separated from Brown. She contends she did so because she learned she was not legally divorced from Willie, and that she never again lived with Brown as her husband. Despite now claiming that she knew in the early 1980's that she was not divorced from Willie, Veleria took no action to legally divorce him, although she claims that she told him that they were still married.

         Willie, however, subsequently remarried. While stationed with the Army in Germany, Willie met Bridgitte and moved in with her and her two children in 1982. Once Willie proposed, he called Veleria to get his birth certificate so he could marry Bridgitte. Willie and Bridgitte married in September 1986 in Denmark. Bridgitte does not know what documentation Willie provided Danish authorities, but she was required to provide her divorce decree from her prior marriage.

         After Willie and Bridgitte were married, Willie was required to submit documentation to the Army so that she and her children could obtain military identification cards and so that her children could attend an American high school. Again, Bridgitte does not know what documentation Willie was required to provide, but she was required to produce her divorce decree. In addition, Willie petitioned for Bridgitte and her children to obtain green cards and, ultimately, all of them moved to Hinesville, Georgia after Willie's station with the Army changed in 1988. From 1993 to 1995, Willie was stationed in Germany again, where he lived with Bridgitte and her children until his retirement and move back to Georgia.

         From the time they were married until his death, Willie, Bridgitte, and her children lived like a typical family, and Bridgitte's children considered Willie their father. In addition, Willie and Bridgitte filed joint taxes as a married couple, and Willie named Bridgitte as his retirement account beneficiary, identifying her as his wife. Willie also petitioned to renew Bridgitte's green card every 10 years. And, for a period of time, Willie's son with Veleria lived with Willie and Bridgitte, and the two women spoke about this arrangement.

         In 2011, Bridgitte learned that Willie had end-stage liver cancer. He was hospitalized for three weeks, and Bridgitte stayed by his side during this time. Veleria knew of Willie's illness, but she did not visit him in the hospital. Willie was discharged from the hospital and nurses came to his house to care from him, and, still, Veleria did not contact Bridgitte. On February 13, 2012, Willie died. Bridgitte made Willie's funeral arrangements and her daughter paid for the funeral with no involvement from Veleria.

         After Willie's death, Veleria divorced her second husband on the grounds of "unintended bigamy." Bridgitte did not know until after Willie's death that Veleria claimed to still be married to him. No divorce certificate dissolving the marriage of Veleria and Willie has been located despite Veleria's search of records in some, but not all, of the places in and around where Willie lived due to his various Army relocations.

         Both Veleria and Bridgitte began petitioning for various benefits after Willie's death, including social security, life insurance, federal pension, and federal death benefits. Veleria was awarded Willie's social security benefits, but Bridgitte, who still lived in Georgia, was not notified of the hearing in Mississippi which resulted in that adjudication. Veleria was also awarded the proceeds of one of Willie's life insurance policies. On the other hand, Bridgitte, who was Willie's primary beneficiary in his will and named therein as his "wife," was permitted to probate the will and was appointed by the court as the estate's administrator. In addition, although Bridgitte initially received Willie's retirement benefits, the benefits were suspended because of the dispute with Veleria, and Bridgitte lost the home she shared with Willie to foreclosure.

         Both Veleria and Bridgitte sought respective declarations from the trial court that she was the legal surviving spouse of Willie. Veleria moved for summary judgment on her petition, which the trial court denied after finding that factual disputes existed as to who was Willie's widow. The case proceeded to a jury trial, where Veleria, Bridgitte, and Bridgette's daughter testified. The jury returned a verdict finding Bridgitte to be Willie's surviving spouse and awarding her $5, 000 in attorney fees. Veleria now appeals.

         We first note that Veleria's appellate brief fails to comply with numerous Court of Appeals rules, making resolution of her arguments difficult. First, in violation of Court Rule 25 (a), her brief contains virtually no citations to the record. "It is not the function of this Court to cull the record on behalf of a party in search of instances of error. The burden is upon the party alleging error to show it affirmatively in the ...

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