This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).







In Re the Marriage of:

Claudia Joan McGuire,





Dennis Edward Filas,




Filed June 27, 2000


Halbrooks, Judge


Washington County District Court

File No. F299297



Carl A. Blondin, 7475 15th Street North, Suite 204, Oakdale, MN 55128 (for respondent)


Mark J. Condon, Johnson & Condon, P.A., Financial Plaza, 7235 Ohms Lane, Edina, MN 55439 (for appellant)




            Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


            Appellant challenges a post-decree order regarding property distribution, arguing:  (1) relevant language in the parties’ stipulation is ambiguous and, therefore, parole evidence should be used to construe that ambiguity, and (2) the ambiguous provision should be construed against respondent as the drafter of that provision.  Because the relevant language in the parties’ stipulation is not ambiguous, and the district court’s findings are not clearly erroneous, we affirm.


            The parties were married on September 26, 1992.  On or about June 1, 1998, respondent moved from their home to an apartment.  She was unable to take all of her possessions with her at that time due to space constraints.  The parties entered into a permanent stipulation that was incorporated into the final judgment and decree on February 2, 1999.  Both parties appeared pro se.

            This case involves issues of ownership of property that can be divided into two sets:

Set One:         Gas barbecue grill

House plants

Folding buffet table with faux wood grain finish

Red wheelbarrow

Antique oak leaded glass buffet


Set Two:         Large Persian rug

Small Chinese runner rug

Gas clothes dryer

Antique clothes rack

Antique walnut commode

Antique church pew

Antique pine kitchen cupboard

Antique large walnut carved cupboard with glass doors

Antique pine pantry cupboard


            In the district court, appellant did not dispute that the items in set one were owned by respondent before the marriage and that respondent inherited the items in set two from her mother after her mother’s death in 1991.  But appellant contends that the items in set two are properly his for two reasons.  First, appellant claims that because the items were in his possession at the time of the dissolution, they are his property pursuant to paragraph V of the decree.  Second, appellant claims that he and respondent had an oral agreement whereby he would keep the items in exchange for assuming sole liability for a $25,000 home equity line of credit.  Respondent denies any such agreement.

            Paragraph V of the decree states in part:

Personal Property and Household Goods.  That each party shall be awarded his/her personal and premarital property.  Each party is awarded household goods, furniture, furnishings, equipment, linens, kitchen utensils and other items of household personal property as it is presently divided, and each party is awarded the property in their possession free and clear of any claim on the part of the other party. 


On September 13, 1999, respondent brought a motion in district court seeking return of all the property listed in sets one and two on the grounds that they are her nonmarital property.  Both parties were represented by counsel at the September 23, 1999 hearing.

The only evidence appellant offered in support of his claim of an oral agreement was his own affidavit.  The district court noted that the terms of the permanent stipulation and dissolution decree do not provide for appellant’s assumption of the home equity line of credit in exchange for his entitlement to respondent’s inherited property.

The district court granted respondent’s motion for return of the nonmarital property, granted appellant’s motion for execution of a quitclaim deed, and denied all other motions.[1]


            The characterization of property as marital or nonmarital is a question of law, which this court independently reviews.  Campion v. Campion, 385 N.W.2d 1, 4 (Minn. App. 1986).  But the district court’s findings of fact underlying the determination will not be disturbed unless clearly erroneous.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01; Kornberg v. Kornberg, 542 N.W.2d 379, 386 (Minn. 1996).

            A finding is clearly erroneous if the reviewing court is “‘left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.’”  Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999) (quoting Gjovik v. Strope, 401 N.W.2d 664, 667 (Minn. 1987)).  When determining whether findings are clearly erroneous, an appellate court views the record in the light most favorable to the district court’s findings.  Frauenshuh v. Giese, 599 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1999).  In general, if the district court had reasonable evidence to support its findings, the reviewing court should not disturb those findings.  Fletcher, 589 N.W.2d at 101. 

            Property acquired by either spouse during a marriage is presumed to be marital property regardless of the form of title.  Minn. Stat § 518.54, subd. 5 (1998).  To overcome the presumption that property is marital, a party must establish that the property is nonmarital by a preponderance of the evidence.  Olsen v. Olsen, 562 N.W.2d 797, 800 (Minn. 1997). 

            “Nonmarital property” means property real or personal, acquired by either spouse before, during, or after the existence of their marriage, which

            (a) is acquired as a gift, bequest, devise or inheritance made by a third party to one but not to the other spouse; [or]

            (b) is acquired before the marriage * * * .


Minn. Stat. § 518.54, subd. 5.  Ordinarily, nonmarital property is not divided between the parties to a dissolution. 

            Here, the district court’s order notes that both parties agreed that respondent inherited the items in set two from her mother.  Appellant does not challenge that finding, but argues that he should be allowed to keep the property because the language in paragraph V of the decree is ambiguous and should, therefore, be construed against respondent as the drafter, and extrinsic evidence should be used to determine the parties’ intent.

            Stipulated dissolution decrees are deemed binding contracts.  Shirk v. Shirk, 561 N.W.2d 519, 521 (Minn. 1997).  Whether a stipulated dissolution decree is clear or ambiguous is a legal question, which this court reviews de novo.  Anderson v. Archer, 510 N.W.2d 1, 3 (Minn. App. 1993).

           Appellant argues that paragraph V of the permanent stipulation, which was incorporated in its entirety into the dissolution decree, is ambiguous and, therefore, requires further interpretation.  While the district court did not specifically discuss ambiguity, the court did acknowledge appellant’s claim that paragraph V of the stipulation and decree entitled him to keep the property still in his possession.  The judge in the instant case was also the judge who presided over the original dissolution and decree and, on appeal, “a trial court’s construction of its own decree is given great weight.”  Redmond v. Redmond, 594 N.W.2d 272, 275-76 (Minn. App. 1999) (citing Mikoda v. Mikoda, 413 N.W.2d 238, 242 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Dec. 22, 1987)). 

            If a decree’s meaning can be ascertained “without any guide other than knowledge of the facts on which the language depends for meaning,” it is not ambiguous.  Erickson v. Erickson, 449 N.W.2d 173, 178 (Minn. 1989) (citation omitted).  Furthermore, the court “must give the contract language its plain and ordinary meaning.”  Current Technology Concepts, Inc. v. Irie Enters., Inc., 530 N.W.2d 539, 543 (Minn. 1995) (citation omitted).  The first sentence of paragraph V unequivocally and specifically awarded each party their personal and premarital property.  We find that it is not ambiguous. 

Appellant made an additional argument as to why the disputed property, notwithstanding its status as nonmarital property, should remain in his possession.  In the district court, appellant alleged that the parties had an oral agreement that appellant would assume responsibility for a $25,000 home equity line of credit in exchange for being allowed to keep the disputed property.  Appellant submitted no evidence in support of the alleged agreement other than his affidavit.  Respondent disputed this claim by affidavit.  After reviewing the evidence and the testimony, the district court found that no such agreement existed.  Appellate courts defer to a trial court’s resolution of factual issues presented by conflicting affidavits.  See Hestekin v. Hestekin, 587 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. App. 1998) (citing Straus v. Straus, 254 Minn. 234, 235, 94 N.W.2d 679, 680 (1959)).  The district court’s findings are supported by the record.


[1]  The issue of a quitclaim deed is not a part of this appeal.