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What is the acceptance of benefits doctrine?

If you and your spouse are getting an Illinois divorce, you likely never heard of the acceptance of benefits doctrine. As you come to a property settlement agreement, however, you should familiarize yourself with this doctrine because it could impact your ability to modify your property division in the future.

The Texas Supreme Court heard Kramer v. Kastleman in 2017, a case in which the acceptance of benefits doctrine came into play. This is the legal doctrine stating that you cannot accept the benefits of a court judgment and then later challenge that judgment without showing special circumstances.

Case background

Lisa Kramer and Bryan Kastleman sought a divorce after nine years of marriage, having accumulated over $30 million in marital assets. The trial court orally granted the divorce, approving the couple’s property settlement agreement. The court, however, took another year to issue its written decree. During the intervening period, Ms. Kramer revoked her consent to the property settlement agreement, claiming that Mr. Kastleman had coerced her into it, thereby committing fraud. She petitioned the court to set the agreement aside, but he argued against this, alleging that she had already received considerable benefits from it, including $20,000 in monthly rent from a property that the agreement awarded to her.

The trial court denied Ms. Kramer the relief she sought and issued its written decree. The appellate court dismissed Ms. Kramer’s appeal, stating that the acceptance of benefits doctrine precluded her from disputing the property settlement agreement. She appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court ruling and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to revise its divorce decree. Noting that the acceptance of benefits doctrine is fact-specific and therefore applies on a case-by-case basis, the high court found that in this case, a great deal of time elapsed between the trial court’s oral approval of the property settlement and its issuance of the written decree. It also ruled that Ms. Kramer had no clear intent to reap the property settlement benefits during the interim.

While this was a Texas case, the Illinois Supreme Court likewise has ruled that courts must apply the acceptance of benefits doctrine on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, you should make sure you understand exactly what your property settlement agreement means before you agree to it. Without a showing of special circumstances, you may find it very difficult to challenge it in the future, especially if you have already reaped the benefits of it.

This is general information only and not intended as legal advice.

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