This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996)




Kim Nelson, petitioner,



Joel B. Nelson,


Filed May 19, 1998


Lansing, Judge

Polk County District Court

File No. F2931211

Timothy W. McCann, 306 American Federal Building, 124 Demers Avenue Northwest, East Grand Forks, MN 56721 (for respondent)

Kevin T. Duffy, 1008 West Second Street, Thief River Falls, MN 56701 (for appellant)

Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*

*Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 2.



The district court denied Joel Nelson's motion to enforce the provisions of a marital dissolution stipulation to require that Kim Nelson reimburse him for one-half his repayment of marital debts. We affirm the court's ruling to deny reimbursement because the stipulation neither apportioned equal responsibility for the debts nor provided for reimbursement.


Joel Nelson brought a motion in the district court for an order requiring Kim Nelson to pay $7,290.89 as her one-half share of discharged marital debts plus $1,914.69 in interest and $505 for motion costs. Basing his claim on the Nelsons' 1994 stipulated marital dissolution, Joel Nelson claimed he was entitled to 50 percent reimbursement on the following debts: (1) American Express -- $730.94; (2) Northwest Medical -- $2,624.58; (3) Nelson Equipment -- $8,807; (4) Norwest Bank Ready Credit -- $2,000; (5) Norwest Bank overdraft -- $599.26. He also claimed that he was entitled to full reimbursement for a $540 payment for piano lessons for the Nelsons' oldest child.

The district court found that of the six claims, only three of the debts were listed in the judgment and decree -- the debts to American Express, Northwest Medical, and Nelson Equipment. As to those debts, the court found that the stipulation providing for joint responsibility for these debts (and for six other marital debts) did not provide for equal responsibility for each debt, nor did it provide that the parties could obtain reimbursement for payments made on the joint marital debts. Joel Nelson appeals the court's order denying reimbursement.


"Debt is apportionable as part of the marital property settlement." Justis v. Justis, 384 N.W.2d 885, 889 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. May 29, 1986). Divisions of real and personal property are final and may be revoked or modified only when the court finds the existence of conditions that justify reopening a judgment. Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(e) (Supp. 1997). The district court retains the limited authority to clarify a dissolution decree that is ambiguous or uncertain on its face. Palmi v. Palmi, 273 Minn. 97, 103, 140 N.W.2d 77, 81 (1966).

Stipulations dividing marital property are considered binding contracts. Tomscak v. Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d 464, 466 (Minn. App. 1984). A stipulation incorporated into a judgment and decree, absent ambiguity, is a final distribution of the marital estate. Jensen v. Jensen, 440 N.W.2d 152, 155 (Minn. App. 1989). A dissolution decree is unambiguous if its meaning may be determined without any guide other than knowledge of the facts on which the language depends for meaning. Landwehr v. Landwehr, 380 N.W.2d 136, 138 (Minn. App. 1985). A writing is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible of more than one interpretation when judged by its language alone. Id.

Joel Nelson contends that the district court erred in finding that the six listed debts were not equally apportioned because the word "jointly" in the stipulation connotes "equal." But he provides no authority for this contention. The term "jointly" is defined as "[u]nitedly, combined or joined together in unity of interest or liability." Black's Law Dictionary 838 (6th ed. 1990). The phrase "jointly responsible," as used in the decree, has the same meaning as "joint liability." "Joint liability" is defined as "[l]iability that is owed to a third party by two or more parties together." Id. A "joint obligor has right to insist that co-obligor be joined as a co-defendant." Id. Thus, if either Nelson were sued by a creditor, the other could be joined as a co-defendant. But "jointly responsible" or "joint liability" does not apportion the debts or provide a basis for obtaining reimbursement.

Alternatively, Joel Nelson argues that he is entitled to reimbursement because of equitable considerations. But Joel Nelson's motion and stated basis for reimbursement was "pursuant to the judgment and decree." When the terms of a judgment and decree are not ambiguous, the court may not rely on equitable considerations to modify a final property division. Jensen, 440 N.W.2d at 154. Joel Nelson points out that unless the language is interpreted as apportioning the six debts, they remain undivided in the decree. We agree that the judgment and decree does not provide a division of the six debts. But a judgment and decree is valid even if the marital debt is not fully apportioned. Justis, 384 N.W.2d at 889. A party to a dissolution may be held liable for marital debts even though the other party receives the benefit of payment. Id. When the stipulation does not directly address apportionment, the court is not required to supply it.

Finally, Joel Nelson argues that the district court's reasoning is inconsistent because he was ordered to reimburse Kim Nelson for her payment of a $2,750 Massey-Ferguson debt. But the stipulation and decree expressly provide that Joel Nelson is responsible for the Massey-Ferguson debts and further provide that Joel Nelson will hold Kim Nelson harmless for these debts. The district court's continuing jurisdiction over dissolution cases extends to enforcement of the decree. Unlike the debts specified as joint responsibilities, the judgment and decree specified both an apportionment and a hold-harmless provision on the Massey-Ferguson debts. See Katz v. Katz, 408 N.W.2d 835, 838 (Minn. 1987) (district court has continuing jurisdiction to enforce provisions of the decree).