Texas Court Made Improper Substantive Change to Property Division with Order Striking Dollar Amounts

A trial court in a Texas divorce retains subject matter jurisdiction to enforce a decree or to clarify ambiguity in the decree.  Texas strongly favors finality of judgment, so the court may not make substantive changes to the property division in a divorce decree once it has become final.  The court does not have the authority to “amend, modify, alter, or change” the final property division despite errors in characterizing the property or applying the law.   The court may, however, issue orders to clarify an ambiguous decree or to enforce the decree.  A court interprets a Texas divorce decree according to the plain language of the decree. The court must interpret the decree as a whole and give effect to all provisions.  A former wife recently challenged a court order purporting to clarify the final divorce decree, arguing it substantively changed the property division.

Divorce Decree and Subsequent Order

The trial court filed with the clerk and sent the parties a letter rendering the property division following the bench trial.  The letter awarded to the wife as separate property 50% of three specified accounts and 50% of any stocks, options, or retirement accounts that were not listed in the letter but had vested as of a specified date.  The court directed the husband’s counsel to draft a decree comporting with the letter rendition.

The husband’s attorney added details that were not expressly included in the letter. He specified the date when the balances would be calculated for the property division and included a dollar amount for each account.  The parties’ attorneys approved the draft divorce decree as to form.  The trial court signed the decree as drafted by the husband’s attorney.  The decree became final without either party appealing.

The wife filed a motion to enforce the transfer of her share of the accounts in 2023.  The husband alleged the amounts stated in the decree did not accurately represent the account balance on the stated date of April 20, 2022 because they were based on his inventory from a month before the trial. Between that time and the date set forth in the decree, he had spent over $50,000 from the accounts.  There was no evidence presented supporting these claims or the balances of the accounts on April 20, 2022.

The trial court signed a “clarification” order striking the amounts from the provisions in question.  The order also specified a date for the husband to transfer 50% of the account balances as of April 20, 2022.

The Wife’s Appeal

The wife appealed, arguing the clarifying order changed the substance of the division by removing the stated dollar amounts.

The husband argued the order just clarified an ambiguity and the decree contained conflicting terms because the date and the amount did not align.

Lack of Ambiguity

The appeals court concluded the divorce decree was facially unambiguous.  By its plain language, it awarded the wife 50% of the funds, interest, and amounts vested as of April 20, 2022 in the identified accounts, with amounts stated for each account.  The appeals court concluded the dollar amounts added precision by identifying the exact balances as of the stated date.  The appeals court stated this interpretation would harmonize and give effect to both the date and the dollar amounts, while the husband’s proposed interpretation would mean the dollar amounts were “superfluous.” The appeals court pointed out that substantive provisions had to be stricken rather than given effect under the husband’s interpretation.

The appeals court further concluded the order did not clarify the decree, but made it more ambiguous.  The decree required the transfer of exact dollar amounts, but the clarifying order required transfer without specifying amounts.  This change took away the precision that originally existed in the final decree.

No Conflict with the Letter Rendition

The appeals court also concluded the decree did not conflict with the trial court’s letter rendition.  The trial court expressed an intent to clarify the decree to make it “comport with the rendition.” The appeals court pointed out that the letter rendition did not provide a specific date or amounts.  Those details were instead included in the final divorce decree.  The appeals court noted it is common for a trial court to issue a rendition with broad strokes and later provide the details in the written judgment.  There is not a conflict when the decree expands on the letter rendition in a way that is consistent with the terms of the rendition.

The appeals court rejected the argument the trial court had not intended to include dollar amounts in the decree, because the appeals court had to consider what was actually included in the decree, and not the intention of the court.

The appeals court concluded the decree was final and the court’s subsequent order made substantive changes to the unambiguous property division in the decree.  The trial court therefore did not have subject matter jurisdiction to issue that order.  The appeals court reversed the order and remanded.

Contact a Skilled Dallas Family Law Attorney

The trial court’s ability to change a property division after the decree becomes final is very limited.  In some cases, however, a clarifying order may be appropriate.  An experienced Texas divorce attorney can help you understand the terms of your decree and if there is a possible remedy for any areas of concern.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200 to discuss your case.

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