Clarifying Ambiguous Divorce Decrees In Texas

In February 2014, a Texas man appealed the decision of the Travis County, Texas District Court, seeking to gain a better understanding of the effects of his divorce decree, pertaining to his ex-wife’s entitlement to his military retirement pay. In Foreman v. Foreman, a husband and wife were granted a divorce decree, signed in 1996. While the parties were still married, the husband served in the United States Army, and continued to serve during, and after the divorce.

The divorce decree provided that the wife would be entitled to a portion of the husband’s military retirement pay, considered to be “community property,” or, assets that were acquired while the parties were married. The divorce decree stated that the wife would be entitled to 47 percent of the military retirement pay. Following the divorce, the husband continued to serve in the Army for at least 10 more years. When he began to pay his former wife her share of his retirement pay, he experienced frustration over the fact that his ex-wife was benefiting from the pay he accrued after the divorce was finalized.

Challenging a divorce decree as “ambiguous”

When a divorce decree becomes final, it can be very difficult to challenge it. Texas courts are often reluctant to re-visit a finalized divorce, unless it is claimed that the property division in the divorce was void. The Texas Family Code allows a court to continue to have jurisdiction over a divorce matter for the purpose of enforcing the decree, however, it does not grant the court the ability to make any changes to the terms of the property division in the divorce decree.

In Foreman v. Foreman, however, the former husband was granted a judicial remedy called a “clarifying order.” While the court was unable to make changes to the final divorce decree, it did have jurisdiction to clarify any ambiguous terms relative to the property division. The former husband claimed that the decree was not intended to grant his ex-wife rights to the portion of retirement pay that accrued during his service after the couple was divorced, but that the intent was to provide a portion of the retirement pay that was earned while they were married. The ex-wife explained to the court that her position was that the decree was not ambiguous and intended to provide her with 47 percent of the total retirement pay. The district court held a hearing and neither party presented evidence, after which the district court overruled the former husband’s motion to clarify.

The former husband appealed to the Court of Appeals of Texas. The Court of Appeals reviewed the case to determine whether the district court abused its discretion in its decision, and applied general contract law to determine whether the divorce decree was ambiguous. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court, and the ex-wife was ultimately entitled to 47 percent of the total amount of the former husband’s retirement pay, regardless of the fact that much of the retirement was earned after the parties divorced.

When entering into a divorce agreement, it is vital that all parties understand the long-term ramifications of the agreement. A divorce degree will be treated much like a traditional contract. Thus, the counsel of an experienced attorney can assist you in reaching an agreement that you can be comfortable with, long after the divorce is finalized.

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