With our CFL course, it’s not who you know, it’s what you know that helps you resolve financial matters in divorce cases. You can rely on your knowledge to fix or even prevent mistakes. However, nobody’s perfect. Sometimes, an oversight can lead to further litigation. That happened in the recent Texas appeals case of Woodward v. Woodward when a clerical error in the divorce decree didn’t comply with the terms of the settlement agreement.
Sharon and Robert Woodward married in 1999 and had two children. In 2016, Sharon filed for divorce and Robert counter petitioned.
In 2017, they signed and filed a marital settlement agreement (MSA). The final divorce decree granted Robert $100,000 of Sharon’s 401(k). The original draft, however, allotted Robert $50,000 of Sharon’s retirement compensation and awarded him “a lump sum of $50,000, regardless of market fluctuation.”
The decree stated it was “stipulated to represent a merger of a mediated settlement agreement between the parties.” It further noted that “To the extent there exist any differences between the mediated settlement agreement and this Final Decree of Divorce, this Final Decree of Divorce shall control in all instances.”
Neither party filed a post-trial motion to change the judgment. As of June 11, 2017, the trial court lost plenary or absolute power.
Robert later presented Sharon with a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) that awarded him $100,000 of Sharon’s 401(k). Sharon then filed a motion for judgment nunc pro tunc, arguing that the final divorce decree contained a clerical error that affected the distribution of the marital estate and didn’t comply with the MSA. She asked the trial court to fix the error.
The term “Nunc pro tunc” means “now for then,” and generally applies retroactively to correct an earlier ruling.
Robert opposed this motion on the grounds that the court couldn’t correct a judicial error. At the hearing, the trial court indicated it intended to grant Sharon’s motion. Robert offered, and the trial court admitted his responsive brief.
The court signed a final decree of divorce nunc pro tunc awarding Robert $50,000 of the 401(k). He didn’t file a motion for reconsideration or a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. Instead, he appealed.
Texas 14th Court of Appeals Verdict
The appellate court verdict indicated that Robert presented four related issues, arguing:
- the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sign the decree nunc pro tunc that made major changes to the final divorce decree after the court lost absolute power
- the change granted in the decree nunc pro tunc corrected a judicial rather than a clerical error
- the trial court abused its discretion and committed reversible error in granting the decree nunc pro nunc
- the trial court improperly admitted some of Sharon’s exhibits at the hearing on the motion for judgment nunc pro tunc
Citing past precedential cases and Texas law, the appeals court noted that an MSA meeting the Family Code’s requirements is irrevocable and binding on the parties. Further, “a party is ‘entitled to judgment’ on an MSA that meets the statutory requirements ‘notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or another rule of law.’ Also, as long as the trial court has plenary power, a party is entitled to a judgment on an MSA.
In Texas, a trial court has plenary power to correct, modify, reform, or vacate a judgment only within 30 days after signing it. After 30 days (when the power has expired), the court loses subject matter jurisdiction and can’t set aside its judgment except for a sufficient cause. It may, however, correct a clerical error in the judgment through a nunc pro tunc ruling at any time.
A clerical error shows a difference in the documentation of a judgment and the one that was actually rendered. “A judicial error occurs in the rendering, rather than the entering, of a judgment and arises from a mistake of law or fact that requires judicial reasoning to fix.” In a nunc pro tunc judgment, the trial court may only fix the entry of a final written judgment that incorrectly states the judgment actually rendered. “An attempted nunc pro tunc judgment rendered to correct a judicial error after plenary power has expired is void for lack of jurisdiction.”
The appeals court decided there was evidence the parties signed an MSA regarding the division of property that met the legal requirements. The MSA was therefore binding and irrevocable and the parties were entitled to judgment on it, notwithstanding any other rule.
Also, the appellate court found evidence in the docket entry that the trial court had given an oral judgment on the MSA.The entry stated “MSA judgment granted” and referenced the law and that a party is entitled to judgment on an MSA if it meets the statutory requirements.
Robert further argued that the trial court had skipped a necessary step and “there was no factual determination as to the rendering.” The appeals court stated it implied the finding that he would get $50,000 of the 401(k). The appeals court disagreed that the trial court hadn’t allowed evidence or skipped any steps. The court stated it had read the briefs, let the parties present opposing arguments, and offer exhibits.
The appeals court upheld the trial court’s determination that the error in the final divorce decree was clerical and granted Sharon’s motion for judgment nunc pro tunc.
Our CFL Credential covers these and other subtle aspects of divorce decrees that can affect property division. It’s not who you know, it’s what you know – your thorough understanding of family law – that sets you and your practice apart. Learn more in our free information packet today.