Law School Case Brief
Jonjak v. Griffith - No. 03-18-00118-CV, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 2977 (Tex. App. Apr. 12, 2019)
A mediated settlement agreement (MSA) in a divorce case meeting certain statutory formalities is binding on the parties and requires the rendition of a divorce decree that adopts the parties' agreement. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 6.602. Trial courts have no discretion to modify the MSA's terms but must render judgment in strict or literal compliance with that agreement.
Appellant Jonjak filed for divorce from wife appellee Griffith in 2015 on the grounds of insupportability. On June 1, 2017, the parties signed a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) dividing most of their marital property. In relevant part, the MSA stated that Griffith "will receive $962,000 from the Bog Farm Profit Sharing 401k, which is 53 percent of the value of the account as represented by [Jonjak] on the day of the mediation via qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) prepared by [Jonjak]." The following day, the parties appeared before a district court and announced the agreement. The district court pronounced the divorce and instructed Jonjak to prepare a decree consistent with the MSA. Six months later, both parties filed their own motions to enter judgment, each accompanied by a proposed divorce decree and QDRO. The district court ruled that Griffith "gets $962,000 as of June 1st, 2017, which is the date of the mediation." The district court then signed Griffith's proposed decree and QDRO after striking certain language. Jonjak filed a timely motion for new trial, arguing the district court erred by making the division effective June 1, 2017. He further argued that awarding Griffith "interest, dividends, gains, or losses" on the $962,000 was inconsistent with the MSA, which awarded the specific sum only. The district court issued findings and conclusions explaining why the parties intended to divide the 401k on June 1, 2017, but did not address the award of "interest, dividends, gains, or losses." Jonjak's motion for new trial was overruled by operation of law. Jonjak appealed.
Where a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) between the two parties to a divorce meets statutory requirements, did the trial court's decree of divorce and imposed qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) impermissibly divide the ex-husband's 401k retirement account contrary to the agreed-upon terms of the MSA?
On appeal, Jonjak asserted the decree divided his retirement account contrary to the terms of the parties' mediated settlement agreement (MSA). Jonjak also challenged the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) implementing that division. The Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed the divorce decree and QDRO with some modifications. Specifically, the divorce decree and QDRO were modified to give Griffith $ 962,000 from Jonjak's retirement benefits but did not grant her 53 percent of the 401k account plus "any interest, dividends, gains, or losses" arising after the date of the award. The Court held that the MSA met the Texas statutory requirements, so the Court looked to the divorce decree. The Court held that the divorce decree impermissibly divided the ex-husband's 401k differently than the parties' MSA. The Court emphasized that the parties have already agreed how the ex-wife will receive her share and what her share will be: $ 962,000 "via QDRO." This language leaves nothing for a QDRO to clarify, and a court may not rewrite or add to the parties' agreement to apply the account's gains or losses to Griffith's award. Thus, even if the decree tracked the language of the MSA, the QDRO could not properly provide that Griffith takes her share "together with any interest, dividends, gains, or losses on that amount."
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