20 Years After Decree Trial Court Clarifies Ambiguity in Provision of Decree

Family Law Case Review
Case: Judith (Lund) Pherson v. Michael Lund
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: The trial court did not impermissibly modify its decree when, over 20 years after the decree was issued, it clarified an ambiguity in the provision in the decree that awarded half of Husband’s pension to Wife.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Husband and Wife divorced in 1991. Husband was a railroad employee. In the parties’ settlement agreement that was approved by the Court, Wife was awarded a “50% portion of the ‘Tier II’ benefits” that Husband held under his railroad pension.

The “wrinkle” was that, Husband went on to work for the railroad for an additional 18-1/2 years after the divorce, further adding to the value of his pension. When Husband retired after 42 years of continuous employment, the Railroad Retirement Board began paying Wife 50% of the benefit that accrued as a result of Husband’s entire period of employment, rather than 50% of the accrued benefit that existed at the time of the parties’ divorce.

Husband put the issue back in front of the trial court. Wife sought to dismiss Husband’s petition, asserting that the “clarification” that Husband requested was really an impermissible modification of the Decree. The trial court sided with Husband, issuing an order that awarded Wife 50% of Husband’s retirement benefit as it existed in 1991. Wife appealed.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the property settlement terms of a divorce decree cannot later be substantively modified, except in case of fraud. However, “[w]hen one party asks a court to clarify a settlement agreement, the court’s task is one of contract interpretation.” The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that retirement benefits that accrued after the divorce could not have been intended as part of Wife’s property settlement, since this was non-marital property in the first place. Further, while Indiana law permits the parties to agree upon a transfer of income or property that one party acquires after the marriage is over (e.g., alimony), this particular settlement agreement lacked any language to suggest that was the intent.

The trial court’s order appropriately clarified the intent of the parties, did not constitute an impermissible modification of the decree, and, thus, was affirmed.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Judith (Lund) Pherson v. Michael Lund

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The Matrimonial Law Group of Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP is one of the largest full-service matrimonial and family law practices in the State of Indiana. We represent clients in a wide spectrum of family law matters, including premarital agreements, cohabitation, separation, divorce (especially involving high net worth individuals and/or complex asset issues), custody, parenting arrangements, adoption, and domestic partnerships. Bingham Greenebaum Doll, a multidisciplinary law firm serving regional, national, and international clients, is the fourth-largest law firm in Indiana. The firm’s main practices include corporate, property, litigation, labor, government law, and personal services law. Visit the firm’s website at www.bgdlegal.com.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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