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Staples v. Staples
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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	2001 ME 121
Docket: 	Han-01-70
 on Briefs:  	June 25, 2001
Decided:	July 25, 2001

Dissenting:CLIFFORD and RUDMAN, JJ.



	[¶1]  Mylon Staples appeals from the judgment of the Superior Court
(Hancock County, Gorman, J.) affirming the order of the District Court
(Ellsworth, Anderson, J.) denying Mylon's motion to amend a qualified
domestic relations order (QDRO).  Mylon contends that the court erred in
concluding that the parties' 1990 divorce judgment and settlement
agreement entitle Ann Staples to one-half of Mylon's pension benefits as of
the date of his retirement, rather than as of the date of the divorce
judgment.  We affirm the judgment.
	[¶2]  After twenty-five years of marriage, Ann and Mylon Staples were
divorced in District Court (Staples, J.).  The divorce judgment refers to the
parties' settlement agreement with the following language:  "The Court finds
that the parties executed a property settlement agreement dated October
30, 1990, which is attached hereto and incorporated [ ] herein by reference. 
Said property settlement shall have the full force and effect of a court
	[¶3]  The divorce judgment recites that Mylon is employed by
Champion International and has "a vested but not yet matured pension." 
The judgment goes on to state:  
It is ORDERED that Plaintiff, Ann Staples, is entitled to fifty
percent (50%) of all pension benefits accrued to Defendant
during the years of his marriage to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff is
hereby granted fifty percent (50%) of each monthly annuity
payment when Defendant's retirement benefits become payable
to him, for as long as he receives benefits.
The settlement agreement provides:
Husband and Wife agree that Wife shall be entitled to one-half of
husband's Champion International Salaried Retirement Plan 001
when he retires from Champion International Corporation. 
Husband shall authorize Champion's Pension Plan Department to
pay Wife directly for her share of said pension benefits.  Said
benefits shall terminate upon Wife's death or remarriage.
	[¶4]  Almost nine years after the divorce, Ann filed a proposed QDRO,
which the District Court (Staples, J.) signed, and it was entered in the
docket on April 9, 1999.  Paragraph 5(a) of the QDRO states:
The amount of the Alternate Payee's entitlement shall be fifty
percent (50%) of the Participant's vested Accrued Benefit (as
the term is defined in the Plan).
On April 21, 1999, Mylon filed a motion to amend the QDRO.  Mylon sought
to amend paragraph 5(a) to provide that Ann's benefits under the pension
plan are to be computed as of the date of the divorce judgment. 
	[¶5]  At the hearing on Mylon's motion, the District Court (Anderson,
J.) asked the parties several times whether they would like to submit
testimonial evidence.  Ann asked to submit evidence to show the intent of
the parties at the time of the divorce.  Mylon argued that testimony was
unnecessary and would improperly lead to a relitigation of the nine-year-old
divorce.  He maintained that the only issue before the court was one of law,
that is, whether the divorce court had the power to order that Ann receive
any part of Mylon's pension earned after the divorce judgment, and he
argued that the court did not have the power.
	[¶6]  At Mylon's request, the trial court did not hear testimony and
based its decision solely on the documents.  The court found that the
divorce judgment was ambiguous on its face because it provides that Ann is
to receive fifty percent of the pension benefits that accrued during the
marriage, but also grants her fifty percent of each monthly payment upon
Mylon's retirement.  The court found that the settlement agreement
resolves the ambiguity because it does not limit Ann's portion to fifty
percent of the benefits accrued during the marriage.  The court further
concluded that the divorce court had the power to order that the pension
benefits be split equally at the time of Mylon's retirement because in so
doing it was only ratifying the agreement of the parties, and parties can
agree to distribution and support which a court might not be able to order in
the absence of an agreement.  The court denied Mylon's motion to amend
the QDRO.
	[¶7]  Mylon appealed to the Superior Court which affirmed the District
Court's decision.  We review the decision of the District Court directly. 
Doucette v. Washburn, 2001 ME 38, ¶ 7, 766 A.2d 578, 581.  We will not
overturn the District Court's denial unless its factual findings are clearly
erroneous; it has erred as a matter of law; or it has abused its discretion.  Id.
	[¶8]  Mylon contends that the District Court erred in not holding a
testimonial hearing and in finding that Ann is entitled to fifty percent of
Mylon's pension as of the date of his retirement.{1}  Mylon several times
expressed to the court that testimony was unnecessary, and it was at his
urging that the court decided not to hear testimony.  Mylon waived an
evidentiary hearing and cannot now complain that he did not receive one.
	[¶9]  Whether the divorce judgment is ambiguous is a question of law. 
Austin v. Austin, 2000 ME 61, ¶ 4, 748 A.2d 996, 998.  The court did not
err in finding an ambiguity.  The judgment provides that Ann is to receive
fifty percent of the pension benefits that accrued during the marriage, but it
also states that she is to get fifty percent of each monthly payment upon
Mylon's retirement.  The divorce judgment is susceptible to more than one
reasonable interpretation.  Under one interpretation, Ann's share of the
pension benefits stopped accruing as of the date of the divorce; under the
other interpretation, she gets one-half of the amount accrued to the date of
Mylon's retirement.  The two possible interpretations fit the classic
definition of an ambiguity.  See Blanchard v. Sawyer, 2001 ME 18, ¶ 4, 769
A.2d 841, 843.  
	[¶10]  Because Mylon persuaded the court not to hear the testimony of
the parties concerning the ambiguity in the divorce judgment, the court
turned to the only piece of evidence before it to shed light on the ambiguity. 
That evidence is the settlement agreement which itself contains no
ambiguity.  It states that Ann is to receive one-half of Mylon's pension when
he retires.  It does not state that the one-half amount is to apply only to
benefits that accrued as of the date of the divorce.  The only limiting
language in the provision is the statement that the benefits terminate upon
Ann's death or remarriage.  The District Court did not clearly err in its
factual determination that the parties intended by the settlement agreement
that Ann should receive one-half of Mylon's pension calculated as of the date
of his retirement.
	The entry is:
			Judgment affirmed.
CLIFFORD, J., with whom RUDMAN, J., joins, dissenting. [¶11] I respectfully dissent. The divorce judgment contains language that specifically and unequivocally limits Ann Staples' share of Mylon Staples' pension benefits to fifty percent of what accrued to Mylon during the years of their marriage. The only evidence considered by the trial court in reaching its conclusion that Ann was to share in Mylon's entire pension was the settlement agreement and the divorce judgment. In my view, no language in either document sufficiently contradicts the provision in the divorce judgment limiting Ann to fifty percent of "benefits accrued . . . during the marriage" to create an ambiguity. [¶12] Title 19-A M.R.S.A. section 953 vests the court with the power to divide marital property, which is defined as "all property acquired by either spouse subsequent to the marriage . . . and prior to a decree of legal separation." 19-A M.R.S.A. § 953 (1998 & Supp. 2000). A provision allowing a spouse to share in the pension benefits of the other spouse that do not accrue until after the marriage has ended amounts to a distribution of the other spouse's nonmarital property. Such a provision is most unusual. If it is the intent of the court and the parties to provide for such an allocation, then the language used in the divorce judgment or settlement agreement to effectuate that intent would have to be much clearer and more specific than the provisions in this divorce judgment and settlement agreement. [¶13] I would vacate the judgment and remand for the entry of a judgment providing that Ann's share of Mylon's pension benefits is limited to fifty percent of those benefits accrued during the marriage.
Attorney for plaintiff: Sophie L. Spurr, Esq. P O Box 334 Blue Hill, ME 04614 Attorney for defendant: Barry K. Mills, Esq. Hale & Hamlin, LLC P O Box 729 Ellsworth, ME 04605
FOOTNOTES******************************** {1} . We do not address Mylon's other issues on appeal which are (1) whether the Superior Court erroneously concluded that he had not demonstrated a clerical error, and (2) whether the Superior Court erred by applying the "clearly erroneous" standard in its review of the District Court's decision. The Superior Court found that Mylon's motion could not be granted because, according to its terms, it was brought pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 59 and 60(a). The Superior Court ruled that as a Rule 59 motion, it was untimely, and as a Rule 60(a) motion, it failed because there was no clerical error. We do not address these issues because we review the District Court's order directly. Ann did not raise either issue in the District Court, and, thus, she has failed to preserve them. Likewise, we do not address Mylon's argument relating to the Superior Court's standard of review because we review the District Court's order directly.