Attempted Common Law Marriage Leads to General Partnership

Elizabeth Rebeles thought she was in a common law marriage with Paul Leighton, and with good reason — they had been living together since 1984, purchased property and filed tax returns as husband and wife, and started a business together. But after Rebeles filed for divorce in 2006, she discovered that there was no documentation of her divorce from her previous husband, meaning that she could not prove she had ever been validly married to Leighton. The parties nonsuited the divorce case, and Rebeles filed a new suit in which she claimed the parties had formed a general partnership during the time they were together.

The jury found that the parties had indeed formed a partnership back in 1984 and that an event requiring wind-up had occurred in 2006. In accordance with that finding, the trial court wound-up the business and divided the partnership assets. The court of appeals affirmed that aspect of the case, rejecting Leighton’s contention that Rebeles had released  her interest in the partnership through a document she had signed to relinquish “all past, present, and future interest in Paul’s Pit Sand and Gravel, and in Hutchins Sand & Gravel and any dealings by Paul M. Leighton.” That release made no reference to the partnership itself, and both parties testified that they had not intended it to release any claim to other property owned by the partnership. To the court of appeals, those facts supported the jury’s finding that Rebeles had not released her interest in the partnership itself. However, the court of appeals also reinstated a $31,000 verdict in favor of Leighton, based on his claim that Rebeles had breached a post-breakup oral contract for her separately owned company to perform billing and clerical services for one of their jointly owned gravel pits. Even though the oral contract related to the partnership business, there was sufficient evidence to show that the parties were representing their independent interests at the time it was made, and not as agents of the partnership itself. Accordingly, the breach of contract finding could still be harmonized with the general partnership finding, and the court of appeals rendered judgment in favor of Leighton.

Leighton v. Rebeles, No. 05-11-01519-CV

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