Denny and Catherine got divorced in 2009. The court ordered Denny to pay child support and spousal support. With respect to spousal support the court order stated: “This order shall not be a final order. This order shall remain in effect for as long as there is a child support obligation. The parties should return to court to determine spousal support at the expiration of the child support obligation.” The child support stopped in 2012. Relying on the quoted language, after child support ended Denny stopped paying spousal support. Catherine took Denny back to court arguing that he still owed her spousal support. The trial judge went beyond looking at the contents of the court order, and resorted to the hearing transcript for the the hearing that led to the 2009 order. After reviewing the transcript the trial judge ruled that spousal support had not ended, and that Denny owed Catherine arrearages.
On appeal Denny argued that the language of the court order was plain and straightforward, that it was inappropriate for the trial judge to read the transcript, and the the trial judge was wrong in ordering continued spousal support.
Denny loses. The Court of Appeals held that it is within the discretion of the trial judge to determine if the language of the court order is ambiguous. If the trial judge does decide the language is, or could be taken as, ambiguous then the trial court can look beyond the four corners of the order and consider other (i.e., “parole”) evidence to interpret the order. The Court of Appeals holds that the legal principles of contract interpretation apply equally to the interpretation of court orders and judgments; and those contract rules allow evidence beyond the four corners of the disputed document.
The analysis turns on the question of ambiguity. The test is not whether the language appears to the court to be unambiguous, but whether the disputed language is susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation? If it is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation, than evidence other than the words on the page of the court order can be considered. While the appellate court does acknowledge that it can conduct a de novo review to interpret the language of the judgment, it does go out of its way to affirm the decision of the trial judge.
A really interesting read. Click here to read Kiefer opinion.
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