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Christensen v. Christensen

Court of Appeals of Utah

March 29, 2018

Jacqueline E. Christensen, Appellee,
v.
John D. Christensen, Appellant.

          First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Kevin K. Allen No. 064100474

          Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Appellant.

          Raymond N. Malouf, Attorney for Appellee.

          Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judge Michele M. Christiansen concurred. Judge David N. Mortensen concurred in the result.

          ORME, Judge.

         ¶1 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.

         ¶2 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 parties.

         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 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.

         ¶5 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.

         ¶6 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, [1] 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.

         ¶7 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."

         ¶8 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 ...


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