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Clarification of an Ambiguous Texas Divorce Decree

ranchA final unambiguous divorce decree that disposes of all of the marital property should be final.  Under Texas divorce law, such a decree generally cannot be re-litigated.  However, the trial court can issue additional orders to help implement or clarify a prior order if they do not alter the substantive property division.  The court may issue an order of clarification if the decree is ambiguous, as determined by using the rules of contract construction.  A contract is ambiguous if its meaning is uncertain or doubtful, or if it is reasonably subject to more than one meaning.  The court will consider the contract as a whole in light of the circumstances surrounding its formation, including parol evidence and the conduct of the parties.

In a recent case, a wife challenged an order clarifying the division of property.  The parties had signed a mediated settlement agreement.  The settlement included improved property that was described in two ways, a map in Exhibit A and a reference to the metes and bounds descriptions with separate exhibits describing each party’s share.

The parties agreed the husband would be awarded 26 additional acres because the improvements on the wife’s share were of a greater value.  The trial court granted the husband’s motion for clarification of the division of this property, finding the decree was ambiguous.  The clarification stated the map controlled, rather than the metes and bounds descriptions.  The court also entered findings of fact and conclusions of law supporting the order.

The wife appealed, arguing the court could not modify, alter, or change the division of property in the decree.  The husband argued the court had only clarified an ambiguity.

The wife argued the trial court erred in finding the decree was ambiguous.  The appeals court found that the decree’s language and language on Exhibit A called for the property to be divided in accordance with Exhibit A, with an additional 26 acres to be awarded to the husband.  The map showed the additional 26 acres awarded to the husband within the part of the tract designated for the wife.

The metes and bounds descriptions allotted the 26 acres to the husband first, and then it divided the remaining property between the parties equally.  Rather than taking all of the additional shares from the wife, this method meant 13 acres would come from each party.

The appeals court found supporting language for each method in the decree, and it could be reasonably read to require either method.  Since the two methods would result in different awards and could not be reconciled, the trial court did not err in finding the decree was ambiguous.

The wife also argued that the trial court erred by adopting the map description rather than the metes and bounds.  The trial court had held a hearing on the motion, and both parties testified. The wife testified she had agreed that her husband get 26 acres, and then the rest of the ranch was to be divided.  The husband testified he understood that the property was first divided in half, and then he would receive an additional 26 acres from his wife’s half.  He testified the mediator had drawn the 26 acres off his wife’s share and told him that would be added to his share.  The wife pointed to the statements of the number of acres awarded to each party in the metes and bounds descriptions.  She also pointed to the husband’s execution of the divorce decree, his failure to object to the location of the surveyor’s stakes or a fence she had put up, his execution of a mineral deed incorporating the metes and bounds exhibits, and his contract to purchase some of the wife’s acreage that included a description of her acreage that was consistent with the metes and bounds description.

The husband testified he had objected to the survey results, but he had signed the decree because he relied on the surveyor’s description of the property.  He testified he had not paid attention to the property description in the mineral deed because they had only divided the surface rights and kept the mineral rights in undivided interest.  He further testified that he did not pay attention to the total acreage listed in the contract for purchase because he was more concerned with the acreage he was purchasing at the time.

The appeals court found no abuse of discretion here.  The appeals court noted there was evidence supporting the wife’s interpretation, and there was also evidence supporting the husband’s position.  The trial court was within its discretion as the fact finder to find Exhibit A more accurately stated the intent of the parties.

The wife also argued that the order was not a clarification or enforcement order because it changed the division of property.  The appeals court, however, found the order was ambiguous, and the trial court therefore had the authority to clarify it under the Texas Family Code.

The wife further argued the order violated her constitutional rights under Texas Constitution, art 16 § 15, since the awarded property had become her separate property, and the order divested her of it.  The appeals court found there was no divestment of separate property because the order merely clarified what was intended by the decree.

The appeals court also rejected the wife’s argument that res judicata precluded the clarification order.  The Texas Family Code specifically provides for clarification orders.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Although divorce decrees generally should be final, the court may clarify an ambiguity in the decree, as this case shows.  If you are facing divorce, an experienced Texas divorce attorney can help you.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.

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Valid Post-Marital Agreement in Texas?

Texas Post-Divorce Modifications of Property Division and Collateral Estoppel

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