Larsen v. Larsen

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Larsen v. Larsen, Case No. 20000607-CA, Filed March 8, 2001 IN THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS


Kenneth R. Larsen,
Plaintiff and Appellant,


Patricia Stumph
fka Patricia Larsen,
Defendant and Appellee.

(Not For Official Publication)

Case No. 20000607-CA

March 8, 2001 2001 UT App 74 -----

Third District, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Frank G. Noel

Kenneth R. Larsen, Salt Lake City, Appellant Pro Se
Kevin V. Olsen, Salt Lake City, for Appellee


Before Judges Bench, Davis, and Thorne.

BENCH, Judge:

"We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation." Taylor v. Hansen, 958 P.2d 923, 928 (Utah Ct. App. 1998). Therefore, in determining whether a divorce decree is ambiguous, we look to general principles of contract interpretation. "Language in a written document is ambiguous if the words used may be understood to support two or more plausible meanings." Whitehouse v. Whitehouse, 790 P.2d 57, 60 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). If provisions in the decree are either "unclear or missing," then the provision may be ambiguous. Id. "However, the mere fact that the parties interpret the language differently does not, per se, render the writing ambiguous." Id.

The disputed provision in the divorce decree reads: The Defendant be awarded a claim, lien and interest in the Plaintiff's retirement account in the sum of $45,000.00 and that said interest shall be paid if, when, and as the Plaintiff receives those benefits. It is further ordered that the Plaintiff do nothing to defeat this claim of the Defendant and that a qualified domestic relations order be entered as requested to protect and secure the interest of Defendant in said retirement. We cannot conclude that this provision is ambiguous. Therefore, we look only at the plain language of the decree for its meaning.

When addressing Appellee's interest in Appellant's retirement fund, the decree specifies that Appellee has an interest, and that interest is set at $45,000.00. The decree also states the time that Appellee will receive her interest "if, when, and as" the Appellant receives his retirement benefits. Additionally, Appellant is instructed to do nothing to defeat Appellee's claim.

Appellee refers us to Lyngle v. Lyngle, 831 P.2d 1027 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) in support of her argument. In Lyngle, we concluded that a provision in the divorce decree awarding wife "'the proceeds from the joint stock account,'" was ambiguous. Id. at 1029. Based on extrinsic evidence, we agreed with the trial court that the parties' intent was to award wife at least $44,000.00 plus interest from the date of the decree, and not $4,953.00--the value of the account at the time of the divorce. See id. at 1030. Appellee claims that we should likewise award her interest on her $45,000.00.

Appellee overlooks an important distinction between this case and Lyngle. In Lyngle, we determined the language in the divorce decree relating to the joint stock account was ambiguous because there was more than one plausible meaning of "proceeds from the joint stock account." Id. at 1029. We cannot conclude that the same ambiguity exists in Appellee's decree, which values her claim as $45,000.00. The plain language of the decree is clear and we cannot conclude that there is any ambiguity in the language. Therefore, the reasoning of Lyngle is not applicable here.

The qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) referenced in the decree was to notify the retirement plan administrator that Appellee has a claim on the funds, not to provide a mechanism where Appellee would have control over her portion of the account. Appellee's argument to the contrary is disingenuous. Until she realized Appellant's retirement account had appreciated considerably since the time of the divorce, she made no attempts at obtaining a QDRO and expressed no interest in how the funds were being invested.

We conclude that there is no ambiguity in the divorce decree provision relating to the division of Appellant's retirement account. The decree unambiguously identifies Appellee's interest in the account as $45,000.00. Appellee is therefore entitled to $45,000.00 only, and not to any interest accrued since the divorce was finalized. Additionally, the decree is unambiguous that the time for disbursement of Appellee's interest is "if, when, and as" the funds are disbursed to Appellant. We also conclude that Appellant is not unjustly enriched by our adherence to the plain language of the decree and owes Appellee no fiduciary duty other than to "do nothing to defeat" Appellee's claim.

Accordingly, we reverse the order of the trial court and remand for entry of a QDRO consistent with this decision.

Russell W. Bench, Judge -----


James Z. Davis, Judge

William A. Thorne, Jr., Judge