Officially released June 18, 2019.
In Short: Ambiguity in agreements regarding QDRO will open the door to testimony about the intent of the QDRO provision.
The Facts: The parties were divorced in 2016 pursuant to a separation agreement. The agreement included an order that third-party counsel draft a QDRO transferring 50% of the value of the marital portion of Husband’s defined benefit pension, “minus the amount of Wife’s social security benefit” paid as a separate interest payment over the life of Wife. The third-party-counsel drafted a proposed QDRO and Wife refused to sign it.
The parties filed various post-judgment motions including Husband’s motion to compel and Wife’s motion to open based on inter alia, mutual mistake. Wife argued that the “minus the amount of Wife’s social security benefit” language was intended to be operative thirty years in the future when she became eligible for social security. Under the terms of the proposed QDRO, however, Wife’s share of the pension benefit was presently reduced by immediately subtracting her anticipated future social security at full retirement age of 67, eliminating most of the benefit she would receive.
On the day of the hearing Husband filed a motion in limine to preclude Wife from presenting parol evidence, including her own testimony. The trial court granted the motion in part, on the basis that the agreement was a fully integrated contract. Wife was precluded from testifying regarding the intent of the agreement. The trial court denied Wife’s motion to open and Wife’s motion for reargument was denied. In response to Wife’s motion for articulation, the trial court articulated that it had found no ambiguity in the language of the separation agreement. Wife appealed arguing that the court erred in granting the motion to compel and improperly granted the motion in limine.
Husband argued that the Appellate Court should decline to review Defendant’s claim of error as to the granting of the motion to compel, based on Wife’s failure to object at the hearing or file a written objection to the motion. The Appellate Court dispensed with this argument, finding no duty to file a written objection and noted that Wife opposed the motion throughout.
Plenary review applied to construction of a written contract, such as a separation agreement incorporated into a judgment of dissolution. The Appellate Court held that there is more than one possible approach to calculating the Wife’s social security benefit and thus there is ambiguity. This was clear based on Wife’s social security statement which provided different possible benefits at different ages of retirement. Where the contract language was susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, it was error to determine that the provision was unambiguous. The matter was remanded for a new hearing on the motions and to determine the intent of the parties after consideration of extrinsic evidence and circumstances.