Washington Court Cannot Correct Judicial Error in Property Division in a Divorce Decree

A trial court in a Washington divorce generally has broad discretion in the disposition of property and debts.  Once the court enters the dissolution decree, though, it generally may not modify the property division unless there are conditions justifying the reopening of a judgment.  The court may, however, correct clerical errors pursuant to CR 60(a). The court may not correct judicial errors, which involve “errors of substance.”

In a recent case, a husband challenged a court order that he argued changed the distribution of debt after he had moved for clarification of the original decree.

In his divorce petition, the husband had requested the debts be split equally and paid from the proceeds of the real property the parties owned together.  The trial court awarded the husband the landscaping business along with its premises, equipment, and debt.  The court awarded the wife $38,000 in spousal maintenance. The “Petitioner’s Debt” section of the decree stated the husband pay the 16 listed debts.  Next to a mortgage debt and accounts in the husband’s name, the court wrote 100%.  The court did not write any percentage next to two items on the list.  The rest of the items had 50% written by them.

The court crossed out language saying the wife must pay the debts listed below in the “Respondent’s Debt” section.  The court only listed credit, debt, and/or debit accounts in her name and liabilities associated with any assets or property she was awarded.

The husband moved for correction of a clerical mistake and clarification of the decree.  He argued he was only to be responsible for half of the debts marked with 50% next to them. He asked the court to clarify the decree and explicitly allocate the remaining 50% of the debts, and stated that it seemed likely the wife was intended to pay the remaining 50%.  The wife objected, arguing the husband had been awarded nearly all of the property.  The court stated it would make the modification the wife requested so it would be clear the debt was 100% the husband’s.  The court then issued an order stating “Section 10 of Respondent’s debt is changed to read 100% not 50%.”

The husband appealed.  He argued the court did not have the authority to issue an order stating he owed 100% of the debts because the trial court’s original intention was to split the debts equally.  The wife argued the court never intended to assign her 50% of the debts.  She argued the handwritten 50% was what the husband was to pay on signing the decree.  She argued it was not intended to be a division of debt but was instead a reduced amount to make funds available so the spousal maintenance could be paid.

In determining if an error was clerical or judicial, the appeals court reviewed the record and interpreted the decree to determine the trial court’s intention when it entered the original order.  The appeals court noted the trial court’s intent in amending the order was clearly for the husband to be responsible for 100% of the debts listed as “Respondent’s Debts” in the decree.  The appeals court found the trial court’s comments after the wife’s testimony suggested the court had not decided how to divide the property at that point and that there were no other statements in the transcript reflecting the court’s intent with regard to property and debt division.  The appeals court had to interpret the decree itself to determine if the intent of the decree was reflected in the later order.

The appeals court found the decree’s plain language indicated the husband was to pay 50% of the debts at issue.  The appeals court noted that although the decree did not state who was responsible for paying the remainder of those debts, the court was only authorized to apportion the debt between the two parties.  There was nothing suggesting the court meant anything other than the logical assumption it was apportioning the debts between the parties.  The appeals court found no support for the wife’s argument that the husband was supposed to pay the 50% at a certain time.

The appeals court found the decree reflected an intent for the husband to be responsible for 50% of the specified debts.  The subsequent order, making him responsible for 100%, reflected a different intention and was therefore an attempt to correct a judicial error.  The appeals court vacated the order on the motion and remanded for further proceedings.

The property division in a divorce decree is intended to be final.  A trial court has limited authority to modify it once it has been issued.  This case shows that an appeals court will vacate an improper modification of property division.

If you are facing a divorce with a complex property division, you need an experienced Washington divorce attorney to help guide you through the process.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.