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In re Wiggains

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 14, 2017

In the Matter of: JEREMY WIGGAINS Debtor

         Appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, BARKSDALE, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          LESLIE H. SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judge:

         The bankruptcy court held that an agreement between the debtor and his spouse that partitioned their homestead property was a fraudulent transfer. Consequently, the non-debtor spouse had no interest in the proceeds from the sale of the homestead. This court granted the parties' joint request to permit an appeal directly to this court. We AFFIRM.


         Jeremy Wiggains and his wife Tanya, married since 2007, purchased an expensive home in an exclusive Dallas suburb in late 2012. During their brief residency, the couple made valuable improvements as part of their investment strategy to increase profits from a future sale of the home.

         In the summer of 2013, the Wiggainses began marketing their home. In August 2013, they signed a sales contract for $3.4 million. A few days before they received the purchase offer, two significant events occurred. First, the Wiggainses, upon the advice of counsel, executed and filed a "Partition Agreement, " which sought to recharacterize their home from community property to separate property, one half belonging to each spouse. The Partition Agreement further provided that each spouse would have "sole and exclusive authority, management, and control of their separate property. . . ."

         Second, Mr. Wiggains filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code one hour after recording the Partition Agreement. He claimed an exemption for his separate interest in the home under Texas law, which is subject to the $155, 675 homestead exemption cap of Section 522(p) of the Bankruptcy Code, enacted in 2005 as part of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act ("BAPCPA") to address the so-called "mansion loophole." After various objections by the Trustee and certain creditors, Mr. Wiggains agreed to limit his homestead exemption to $130, 675. Mrs. Wiggains did not separately file for bankruptcy.

         The family resided at the home until it was sold by the Chapter 7 Trustee for $3.4 million, netting $568, 668.41 in cash proceeds after payment of all liens, claims, and encumbrances. The net from the sale was further decreased by the disbursement of $130, 675 to Mr. Wiggains pursuant to his homestead exemption.[1]

         On May 5, 2014, Mrs. Wiggains initiated an adversary proceeding seeking a declaratory judgment recognizing that the Partition Agreement gave her a one-half separate property interest in the net proceeds from the sale. The Trustee counterclaimed to avoid the Partition Agreement and for a declaration that the remaining proceeds from the sale were property of the estate. The bankruptcy court held a one-day trial on these issues on October 21, 2014.

         At trial, Mr. Wiggains testified that he entered into the Partition Agreement, upon the advice of counsel, with the purpose of excluding his wife's community-property interest in the homestead from his bankruptcy estate. He understood his bankruptcy exemption was statutorily capped at $155, 675, an amount which he correctly believed the net sale proceeds would exceed. Although the couple discussed the possibility that both would declare bankruptcy so that they could receive the double homestead exemption of $311, 350, Mr. Wiggains testified that he thought entering into the Partition Agreement was the right thing to do as he did not believe his wife was obligated on his business debts. Whether she would have been liable is not an issue raised here.

         In its April 2015 decision, the bankruptcy court held that Mr. Wiggains's "sole actual intent in entering the Partition Agreement was to avoid the effect of the limitation placed on his homestead exemption by section 522(p) of the Bankruptcy Code, " and the court equated such intent with "gamesmanship for the purpose of placing reachable assets outside of creditors' reach." The bankruptcy court also stated that Mr. Wiggains's "articulated intent to preserve for his family as much money as possible is the same as an intent to shield as much money as possible from creditors . . . ."

         The bankruptcy court declared the Partition Agreement avoidable as a fraudulent transfer, leaving the amount of the net sale proceeds in excess of Mr. Wiggains's exemption to be nonexempt property of the estate. The bankruptcy court also determined that Mrs. Wiggains had "no right or interest in the Homestead Net Sale Proceeds by virtue of the Partition Agreement." A principal factor in these conclusions was that the couple executed the Partition Agreement "in the shadow of an imminent bankruptcy filing" for no other reason than to shield a portion of Mr. Wiggains's assets from his creditors, which the bankruptcy court determined "can only be reasonably interpreted as an act done with intent to hinder and/or delay creditors."

         In its initial decision, the bankruptcy court did not decide whether Mrs. Wiggains might be entitled to some distribution from the net sale proceeds under Section 363(j) of the Bankruptcy Code on account of her separate homestead interest, notwithstanding the avoidance of the Partition Agreement. Notably, Section 363(j) requires the Trustee, after a sale of certain types of property, to apportion and distribute sale proceeds to a debtor's spouse or co-owner. 11 U.S.C. § 363(j). On April 20, 2015, Mrs. Wiggains filed a motion in the underlying bankruptcy case to have compensation paid to her from the net sale proceeds for her separate homestead interest.

         On July 1, 2015, which was after amending its initial opinion to make it an interlocutory order and also to consolidate the contested matter into the adversary proceeding, the bankruptcy court held an evidentiary hearing on Mrs. Wiggains's homestead compensation request. Mrs. Wiggains was the only witness during this second hearing. She testified that her family was renting a 6, 000-square-foot house (at a cost of $5, 000 per month) because they did not have funds to purchase a new homestead; that her husband was employed by a local automobile dealership; and that the family had exhausted all funds derived from the $130, 675 homestead exemption. Based on an expert report, which the bankruptcy court found irrelevant, Mrs. Wiggains argued she was entitled to as much as 95% of the balance of the net sale proceeds.

         The bankruptcy court concluded that Mrs. Wiggains failed to carry her burden to show entitlement to any compensation from the sale of the homestead under Section 363(j) or any other provision of the Bankruptcy Code. The bankruptcy court noted that the proffered evidence was "not particularly compelling, " and did not show that the "Homestead had anything more than general intrinsic value to her." On September 4, 2015, the bankruptcy court entered its final judgment avoiding the Partition Agreement, a declaratory judgment that the Trustee was entitled to the balance of the net sale proceeds, and its judgment that Mrs. Wiggains was not entitled to a distribution from the net sale proceeds pursuant to Section 363(j).

         After filing a timely notice of appeal to the district court on September 22, 2015, Mrs. Wiggains filed with this court a request, which was joined by the Trustee, to allow a direct appeal here under 28 U.S.C. § 158(d). We granted the request on December 16, 2015.


         We review the fact findings in an order from a bankruptcy court for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. Total Minatome Corp. v. Jack/Wade Drilling, Inc. (In re Jack/Wade Drilling, Inc.), 258 F.3d 385, 387 (5th Cir. 2001). "A finding of fact is clearly erroneous only if on the entire evidence, the court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Robertson v. Dennis (In re Dennis), 330 F.3d 696, 701 (5th Cir. 2003) (quotation marks omitted). "Clear error review is especially rigorous when we review a lower court's assessment of trial testimony, because the trier of fact has seen and judged the witnesses." Moore v. CITGO Ref. & Chems. Co., 735 F.3d 309, 315 (5th Cir. 2013) (quotation marks omitted). "Where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous." First Nat'l Bank LaGrange v. Martin (In re Martin), 963 F.2d 809, 814 (5th Cir. 1992) (quotation marks omitted).

         I. The Avoidance of the Partition Agreement

         Mrs. Wiggains contends the bankruptcy court clearly erred when it found Mr. Wiggains acted with actual intent to hinder or delay his creditors by executing the Partition Agreement. Specifically, she challenges the bankruptcy court's factual finding by arguing the court (1) failed to engage in a contextual analysis to determine her husband's intent in executing the Partition ...

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