In re the Marriage of: Nancy Ruth Cates, petitioner, Appellant,
Mark Dean Cates, Respondent.
Rice County District Court File No. 66-FA-10-1879
Denis E. Grande, Susan A. Daudelin, Mackall, Crounse & Moore, PLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)
Jonathan S. Braden, Faribault, Minnesota (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Smith, Presiding Judge; Chutich, Judge; and Toussaint, Judge.
In this action to enforce a marital-dissolution judgment's property division, appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to amend the Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) dividing respondent's pension, or, in the alternative, to amend the property division or to order respondent to pay permanent maintenance. We affirm.
Appellant Nancy Cates argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to amend the QDRO awarding her a portion of respondent Mark Cates' pension. Appellant contends that the parties understood that she would receive $3, 300.00 per month after respondent, her former husband, retired, but this amount was reduced by the pension plan administrator because of her age and respondent's early retirement to $2, 087.73 per month, the actuarial equivalent of a $3, 300.00 per month benefit when those factors are considered.
Divisions of marital property in dissolution actions are final, subject only to the same standards required to reopen a judgment. Minn. Stat. § 518A.39, subd. 2(f) (2012) (finality of property division); Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2 (2012) (listing possible bases for reopening judgment). Appellant does not assert one of the statutory bases for reopening judgment; rather, she argues that "the district court may, in its discretion, issue an order that implements or enforces specific provisions of the judgment and decree as long as the order does not alter the terms of the original judgment and decree or affect the parties' substantive rights." We review the district court's order clarifying its original judgment for an abuse of discretion. Nelson v. Nelson, 806 N.W.2d 870, 871 (Minn.App. 2011).
A stipulated dissolution judgment is a contract. Id. at 872. We interpret contract language according to its plain and ordinary meaning; rules of construction apply only when the contract is ambiguous. Id. "Contract language is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation." Id. (quotation omitted). An appellate court reviews the question of whether a contract is ambiguous de novo. Id.
The question here involves interpretation of the phrase "[Appellant] is awarded a portion of [respondent's] New York Life Insurance Agents Pension Plan, which shall produce a benefit of $3, 300.00 per month as of the date of entry [of the] Judgment and Decree." Appellant contends that the clear language of this paragraph provides her with $3, 300.00 in cash per month. Respondent argues that this language means appellant receives the actuarial equivalent of a benefit of $3, 300.00 if it were paid to him.
Because both parties have presented a reasonable interpretation of the contract language, we conclude that it is ambiguous. The ambiguity centers on the word "benefit"; appellant believes this means she should receive $3, 300.00 per month in cash; respondent argues that "benefit" is the starting place from which to make adjustments to value.
We can consider extrinsic evidence to ascertain the meaning of an ambiguous contract. Id. Here, appellant relied on a printed statement that, as of October 1, 2010, respondent was entitled to a pension benefit of $6, 600.00 if he retired on October 1, 2010; she was to receive temporary maintenance of $3, 000.00 per month until age 62; the parties contemplated that respondent would retire before age 65; appellant assumed that receiving half of the accrued $6, 600.00 benefit would result in a $3, 300.00 monthly payment to her, roughly equivalent to the temporary maintenance. The parties agreed that there would be no maintenance paid after appellant turned 62, or after she started to receive pension payments. Appellant also agreed that she would not be entitled to any increase in pension due to ...