This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In Re the
Robert George Hoye, petitioner,
Debra Jean Hoye,
Reversed and remanded
Stearns County District Court
File No. F096342
Carol M. Klaphake, Hall & Byers, P.A., Suite 600, 1010 West St. Germain, St. Cloud, MN 56301 (for appellant)
Kevin L. Holden, Holden Law Offices, Suite 210, 830 West St. Germain, Box 1823, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Stoneburner, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*
Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by failing to enforce the provision in the parties’ dissolution decree requiring that a building owned by the parties as tenants in common be listed for sale if respondent was late in making monthly rental payments to appellant. Because the decree is explicit and because equitable considerations, even if available, would not justify denying the relief specified, we reverse and remand with instructions to the district court to enter an order requiring the property to be listed for sale consistent with the terms of the decree.
A decree dissolving the parties’ marriage was entered on February 9, 1998 based on a stipulation between the parties. The stipulation was the result of more than 60 hours of mediation. Pursuant to the decree, respondent Robert George Hoye, Jr. (husband) was awarded the Hoye Home Furnishings, Appliance and T.V. business, and the parties were awarded the building that housed the business as tenants in common. The decree requires husband to pay appellant Debra Jean Hoye (wife) $2,100 in monthly rent until husband’s 60th birthday, as long as husband operates the business at its current site, and provides a default remedy: “In the event [husband] is more than 60 days delinquent in the payment of the monthly [rental] payments, the property shall be listed for sale.” The decree prohibits a partition of the property. For tax purposes, the rental payments were designated maintenance, and the court was divested of jurisdiction to modify this portion of the decree.
Husband concedes he was intentionally delinquent on thirteen rental payments between February 1998 and the hearing on post-decree motions, including wife’s motion to enforce the sale of the building. By the date of the hearing, husband had tendered all payments due. The district court denied wife’s motion to order the sale, relying on the court’s “inherent” power over enforcement of its own directives. Wife appeals.
The district court may not modify a final division of property, but it may issue orders to implement, enforce, or clarify the provisions of a dissolution decree so long as it does not change the parties’ substantive rights. Redmond v. Redmond, 594 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Minn. App. 1999); Potter v. Potter, 471 N.W.2d 113, 114 (Minn. App. 1991); see Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(e) (1998) (determining all divisions of real property are final with certain exceptions inapplicable to this case). The district court’s implementation of a decree is reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Potter, 471 N.W.2d at 114.
The district court may clarify or interpret the provisions of a decree only when its terms are ambiguous. Hanson v. Hanson, 379 N.W.2d 230, 232 (Minn. App. 1985) (citing Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 319, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955)). Whether a dissolution decree is ambiguous is a question of law. Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986). 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). A 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); see Shirk v. Shirk, 561 N.W.2d 519, 521 (Minn. 1997) (finding stipulated dissolution decrees are deemed binding contracts); see also Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977) (applying rules of contract construction to interpret stipulated dissolution judgment).
On thirteen occasions husband failed to make his monthly payments to wife within 60 days. Based on the negotiated stipulation of the parties, the decree provides an explicit remedy for late payment: “the property shall be listed for sale.” Because the terms of the decree are unambiguous, there is nothing for the district court to clarify about the remedy provided in the decree. See Hanson, 379 N.W.2d at 232 (finding where terms of a judgment are ambiguous, the court may clarify or interpret it).
The district court declined to enforce the sale of the property for equitable reasons, asserting that it had broad discretion to construe the basic intent of the decree and that the sale of the building might destroy the family business. See id at 233 (exercising discretion in enforcing property division). In Hanson, the district court used its discretion to amend the decree to convert the husband’s share of personal property to a cash award because the original decree did not provide a remedy in the event the parties failed to divide the items of personal property amicably. Id. at 231. Hanson is distinguishable, because in this case, the decree provided an express means of enforcement. See id. at 233; cf. Redmond, 594 N.W.2d at 276 (“[T]here is nothing in the decree that limits the definition of ‘sale’ in the manner urged by Redmond.”); Potter, 471 N.W.2d at 114 (“[T]he decree did not provide expressly for a means to enforce respondent’s lien.”); Erickson v. Erickson, 452 N.W.2d 253, 256 (Minn. App. 1990) (“We recognize the original decree did not provide expressly for a means to enforce respondent’s lien.”).
Hanson relied in part on the case of Greene v. Greene, 98 N.W.2d 519 (Mich. 1959), which affirmed the district court’s refusal to enforce an explicit provision in a decree. See Hanson, 379 N.W.2d at 232-33. The equitable considerations present in Greene, however, are not present in this case. In Greene, the decree awarded to the husband properties that were being purchased by the parties prior to the dissolution and required the husband to pay the wife $8,000 in monthly installments of $400. 98 N.W.2d at 520. The decree provided that in the event of the husband’s default on such payments for more than 30 days, the provision awarding the properties to the husband would be null and void and title would vest in the husband and the wife as tenants in common. Id. at 521. The husband made timely payments until the next-to-last installment when he failed to make a timely payment for reasons not explained to the court. Id. The husband later tendered the last two installments, but the wife refused them and petitioned the court for enforcement of the provision to award the property to the parties as tenants in common. Id. The court refused to enforce the remedy, calling the breach “technical and not material or substantial.” Id. at 523. The Michigan Supreme Court characterized the decision as wise, equitable, and within the necessary scope of the court’s broad authority. Id. at 523-24.
Even if the district court has such authority, it would be inappropriate to exercise it in the instant case. When the husband cured the default in Greene, he completed his obligation with regard to the properties involved. In Greene, the court’s refusal to award the property to the parties as tenants in common for a “technical” breach avoided a large forfeiture by the husband (a substantial change in the original property division) and eliminated ongoing contact and conflict between the parties. In this case, the joint ownership of the property by the parties continues until husband’s 60th birthday in 2013, with wife responsible for specified capital improvements. Husband’s breach here cannot be labeled “technical.” Enforcing the remedy does not create a forfeiture or change the parties’ substantial rights under the agreement. Refusing to enforce the remedy subjects the parties to ongoing joint ownership and potential conflict. Speculation about the effect of the sale on husband’s ability to carry on the business is not a sufficient reason to ignore an unambiguous agreement negotiated by competent adults who were and continue to be represented by counsel.
We reverse and remand to the district court to enter an order requiring the property to be listed for sale consistent with the decree.
Reversed and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.