Property division in a Texas divorce is intended to be final, and a court generally is not allowed to change the division set out in the final decree. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 9.007. The court may, however, issue orders to clarify or enforce the property division set out or incorporated by reference in the decree. Issues related to retirement benefits are often addressed in a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) for private employees or a Court Order Acceptable for Processing (“COAP”) for employees of the federal government, which may be incorporated into the decree. Courts may therefore correct or clarify a QDRO or COAP to achieve the property division set out in the decree.
An ex-husband recently challenged an order allowing his ex-wife half of his entire monthly federal pension. The husband started working for the federal government in 1989. The parties got married in 2000 and divorced in 2011.
Language in the decree seemed to award the wife half of the community share of the husband’s federal government pension benefits, but another provision seemed to award her half of all of those benefits. The decree stated the “community portion” of the pension benefits would be identified in a COAP. The court rendered the COAP in January 2012, but it indicated the wife was awarded 50% of all of the federal pension benefits.
Husband Moves to Amend COAP
The husband only recognized the contradictions after he retired in 2018 and his benefit payments were less than expected. He moved to amend the COAP, arguing it conflicted with the divorce decree. The trial court denied the motion and the husband appealed.
The wife argued that the decree and COAP clearly set out her rights to the pension benefits and the husband was trying to alter them through an improper collateral attack.
The appeals court found the terms of the decree conflicted with each other with regard to division of the pension benefits. One provision stated that the wife was awarded “fifty (50%) percent of the Husband’s Gross Monthly Annuity . . .” Other provisions stated, however, that she was only entitled to half of the community share of the benefits.
The decree incorporated the COAP and stated the wife was awarded 50% of the “vested community portion” of the pension benefits, which would be defined in the COAP. The COAP, however, only stated that the wife was entitled to half of the husband’s Gross Monthly Annuity.
Appeals Court Finds COAP Ambiguous
The appeals court found the conflicting language constituted an ambiguity with two reasonable interpretations. The appeals court found nothing in the record resolving the ambiguity.
The Texas Supreme Court has held that a trial court should generally apply the interpretation of an ambiguous decree that correctly applies the law. Texas courts generally should not divest a spouse of his or her separate property. The appeals court therefore applied the interpretation that would only divide the community portion of the pension benefits.
The husband had sought an order clarifying this issue. The appeals court found that such an order would not modify the decree but would instead clarify it. The trial court had continuing jurisdiction to clarify the ambiguity, so the husband had not attempted an impermissible collateral attack.
The appeals court found an abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of the husband’s motion for clarification. The appeals court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court to enter an order clarifying the division of pension benefits.
Ambiguous Division of Retirements Benefits Can Cost Money and Cause Headaches; Call McClure Law Group to Represent You
An improper division of retirement benefits can make it difficult for a spouse to maintain their lifestyle or even make ends meet. A knowledgeable Texas divorce attorney can help you protect your rights with regard to retirement benefits. Schedule a consultation with McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.