Jacqueline E. Christensen, Appellee,
John D. Christensen, Appellant.
District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Kevin K. Allen
Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Appellant.
Raymond N. Malouf, Attorney for Appellee.
Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judge Michele
M. Christiansen concurred. Judge David N. Mortensen concurred
in the result.
John D. Christensen (Husband) appeals the district
court's order, in which the court refused to reduce
Husband's alimony obligation to Jacqueline E. Christensen
(Wife). We affirm.
Husband and Wife divorced in 2008. The divorce decree
requires Husband to pay Wife $1, 100 per month in alimony.
The stipulated decree also provides:
When [Wife] becomes eligible to receive Social Security,
alimony will be adjusted to equalize the Social Security
incomes of both of the parties. For example, if
[Husband]'s monthly Social Security incomes is $2, 000.00
and [Wife]'s monthly Social Security incomes is $1,
000.00, such shall require an alimony payment of $500.00 to
[Wife] to equalize the monthly Social Security incomes of the
Wife became eligible to receive Social Security benefits in
2015. Soon thereafter, Husband filed a motion, seeking to
equalize the parties' Social Security income and to
reduce his alimony obligation. At the time of his motion,
neither party was actually receiving Social Security income.
Following a hearing, the district court's commissioner
concluded that equalizing Social Security incomes would be
premature because neither party had actually started
receiving Social Security income. Husband timely objected to
the commissioner's ruling, and the district court held a
hearing on the objection. The district court concluded that
the language of the divorce decree did not entitle Husband to
reduce his alimony payment nor did it contemplate Social
Security equalization until both parties began receiving
Social Security benefits. Husband appeals.
On appeal, "the burden of persuasion falls squarely on
an appellant." Jensen v. Skypark Landowners
Ass'n, 2013 UT App 48, ¶ 7, 299 P.3d 609.
See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(8). Specifically, the
appellant must "convince us that the trial court
committed error." Nelson v. Liberty Acquisitions
Servicing LLC, 2016 UT App 92, ¶ 12, 374 P.3d 27
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). As
hereinafter explained, Husband has failed to demonstrate that
the district court's interpretation of the divorce decree
was erroneous as a matter of law.
Ordinarily, we interpret a divorce decree as we would any
other written instrument, construing it in accordance with
its plain meaning and according no deference to the district
court's interpretation. See Gardner v. Gardner,
2012 UT App 374, ¶¶ 14, 24, 294 P.3d 600. But
where, as here, the agreement is ambiguous,  the trial court
ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to
resolve the ambiguities and will make findings of fact to
resolve any disputed evidence, to which findings we defer.
See, e.g., Lyngle v. Lyngle, 831 P.2d 1027,
1030 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) ("[W]hen a divorce decree is
ambiguous extrinsic evidence as to the parties' intention
may be received and considered.") (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted). In this case, however, neither
party recognized the ambiguity within the provision at issue,
requested an evidentiary hearing, or endeavored to introduce
extrinsic evidence to clarify their intent and aid the court
in interpreting the provision. Instead, Husband and Wife each
proceeded as though the meaning of the divorce decree was
clear on its face and capable of construction as a matter of
law. To be sure, each advanced a different interpretive
theory. As teed up by the parties, then, the question for the
district court was which of the two interpretations reflected
the plain meaning of the decree. Thus, we review the district
court's interpretation of the divorce decree without the
benefit of findings of fact based on extrinsic evidence as to
what the parties intended.
Husband argues that the language of the divorce decree is
"very specific." He first claims that equalization
of Social Security benefits should have occurred when Wife
became eligible to receive income from Social Security, not
when she actually chose to start receiving it. In support of
his position, Husband points to this language in the decree:
"When [Wife] becomes eligible to receive Social
Security, alimony will be adjusted to equalize the Social
Security incomes of both of the parties."
While we think that Husband's interpretation is
plausible, Husband has not shown that the district
court's acceptance of the contrary interpretation
advanced by Wife was wrong as a matter of law. The latter
portion of the same sentence, with our emphasis, indicates
that "the Social Security incomes" will be
equalized-not the potential incomes. Additionally,
the example set forth in the decree itself suggests that
receiving income from Social Security is a prerequisite to
equalization. The decree states that "if [Husband]'s
monthly Social Security incomes is $2, 000.00 and
[Wife]'s monthly Social Security incomes is $1, 000.00,
such shall require an alimony payment of $500.00 to [Wife] to
equalize the monthly Social Security incomes of the
parties." This language focuses on the income each party