A Divorce Court Must Give Effect To The Parties’ Mutual Intent Relative to the Interpretation of a Marital Settlement Agreement that is Incorporated into a Stipulated Judgment of Divorce

Genise Schu (“Wife”) and Donn Michael Schu, Jr. (“Husband”) were married in 1986. Husband filed for separation in 2010, after Wife was sentenced to serve time in prison. The divorce court ordered Husband to pay Wife temporary spousal support. Husband then amended his request for dissolution. The parties ultimately entered into a stipulation in which they agreed to postpone a determination regarding spousal support “until Wife’s release from incarceration.” The divorce court determined the issue of spousal support would be reserved for a later date.

Weeks before her release from prison, Wife’s divorce attorney filed a request for long-term spousal support. After Wife was released from prison, Husband’s divorce lawyer argued that the divorce court lost jurisdiction to conduct the hearing regarding spousal support. Before the hearing, Wife’s divorce attorney filed a motion in limine in which she asserted that the language “until” was inserted into the stipulation for judgment as a result of mistake or trickery. Wife’s divorce lawyer argued that he was unaware that opposing counsel had inserted the language in the judgment, which purported to limit the divorce court’s jurisdiction to award long-term spousal support “until Wife’s release from incarceration.” The Wife’s divorce lawyer argued that it was his oversight not to have caught the restriction. He declared that he and Wife relied upon the terms of the stipulation which inferred that the issue of spousal support was simply “reserved.” At the hearing, the divorce court concluded that the jurisdiction had expired. The divorce court reasoned that because the parties’ respective divorce lawyers were “skilled family law lawyers,” the terms of the stipulation were carefully negotiated, and that a final agreement was reached. Thus, the divorce court denied Wife’s divorce lawyer’s request.

The Court of Appeal stated, “We construe a marital settlement agreement that is incorporated into a stipulated judgment under the general rules governing the interpretation of contracts. Where no extrinsic evidence is introduced, or the extrinsic evidence is not in conflict, we independently construe the agreement. Where competent extrinsic evidence is in conflict, we uphold any reasonable construction by the divorce court. The Court’s goal is to give effect to the parties’ mutual intent. It must “consider the circumstances when the parties signed the settlement agreement.” Although a contract has been reduced to writing by the parties, parol evidence is admissible to show fraud, accident or mistake.

A divorce court retains spousal support jurisdiction indefinitely after a lengthy marriage, unless an agreement or order specifically provides otherwise. Here, the stipulated judgment did not specifically provide otherwise. It provided that Husband would pay temporary support “so long as Wife remains incarcerated” and that the divorce court would reserve jurisdiction to award long-term spousal support until Wife’s release from incarceration. The reasonable interpretation of this language, based on the circumstances and the parties’ conduct, is that the hearing was to be held within a reasonable time after release. If jurisdiction had terminated the moment Wife was released from prison, it is doubtful the divorce court could have conducted the hearing. The conduct of Wife’s divorce attorney, after Wife’s release from prison demonstrated that they did not contemplate that the hearing on the issue of long-term support would take place the day of her release. After a long, 23-year marriage, the parties contemplated that long-term support, if any, would not begin until Wife’s release from prison. Wife’s divorce lawyer requested support before she was released and the hearing went forward as soon as reasonably possible. Thus, the divorce court sided with Wife’s divorce attorney and retained jurisdiction to award long-term spousal support.

In re Marriage of Schu (2014) 231 Cal. App. 4th 394