October 9, 2017

Court Retains Jurisdiction To Clarify A Dissolution Order, Even After A Party’s Death; Edwards v. Edwards

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Subject matter jurisdiction can sometimes be a tricky thing. This case shows that there is no bright line taking jurisdiction away from a court hearing a dissolution action after one of the parties dies.

Judith and Allen were married for over 20 years, but divorced in 2012. Judith was awarded half of Allen’s pension and retirement benefits as part of that divorce.

Nearly four years after the divorce, Judith had yet to receive her share of the pension and retirement benefits. She filed a motion and contacted Allen and his attorney to have this corrected. She was not able to quickly get the relief or answers she sought. She intensified her efforts after finding out that Allen was terminally ill with cancer. This led to an agreed temporary restraining order, which prohibited Allen from disposing of his pension and retirement benefits. Allen died two days after that order was entered.

After Allen’s death, his surviving spouse, Jautrice, intervened, claiming an interest in the pension and retirement benefits. She also argued that any claim Judith had was against the estate, and that the dissolution court no longer had jurisdiction. The trial court agreed that it no longer had jurisdiction, and Judith appealed.

On appeal, the Court began from the premise that dissolution proceedings terminate when one party dies. But it recognized that there are exceptions. For example, claims that a dissolution settlement was obtained by fraud were to be tried in the dissolution court, even after a party’s death. So were claims for attorney’s fees, a reduction in child support arrearages, and a disposition of property after a party’s death.

The Court found that the issues in the trial court fell within these exceptions because (1) the trial court was clarifying its earlier dissolution order, and (2) that court was the proper place to try any claims of fraud in the attempts to finalize any QDRO earlier. Therefore, the trial court erred when it found that it no longer had jurisdiction over the matter.

Lesson:

A dissolution court retains jurisdiction to clarify it earlier orders, even after a party’s death.