How Does the Court Determine If Property Division Terms in a Texas Divorce Are Clear or Ambiguous?

When disputes arise over the enforcement of property division terms in a Texas divorce decree, understanding how courts determine the clarity or ambiguity of these terms becomes crucial. Texas law treats these agreements as contracts, and their interpretation follows specific principles designed to honor the parties’ original intentions. This issue typically surfaces when one party challenges the enforcement of the agreed-upon terms, claiming they are unclear or ambiguous.

Governing Principles of Divorce Decrees as Contracts

In Texas, when a divorce decree includes a property settlement agreement, it is governed by contract law:

“Because the divorce decree provision at issue is an agreement by the parties, contract principles control.” See McGoodwin v. McGoodwin, 671 S.W.2d 880, 882 (Tex.1984).

This principle means that the terms agreed upon by the parties are interpreted according to established contract principles, ensuring that the agreement’s integrity is maintained.

Language of the Agreement

Courts focus on the precise wording of the agreement to determine its meaning:

“When construing a contract, we must look to the language of the parties’ agreement.” See Barrow-Shaver Res. Co. v. Carrizo Oil & Gas, Inc., 590 S.W.3d 471, 479 (Tex. 2019).

The objective is to give effect to the parties’ intentions as clearly expressed in their agreement:

“We must give effect to the parties’ intentions as expressed in their agreement.” See Pathfinder Oil & Gas, Inc. v. Great W. Drilling, Ltd., 574 S.W.3d 882, 888 (Tex. 2019).

Ensuring Each Term is Significant

Every part of the agreement must be considered so that no provision is rendered meaningless:

“When discerning the contracting parties’ intent, we examine the entire agreement and give effect to each provision so that none is rendered meaningless.” See Kachina Pipeline Co. v. Lillis, 471 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. 2015).

This holistic approach ensures that each term of the agreement contributes to the overall understanding of the parties’ intent.

Plain and Ordinary Meaning of Terms

Terms within the agreement are given their plain and ordinary meaning unless a different meaning was clearly intended:

“We give contract terms their plain and ordinary meaning unless the contract indicates that the parties intended a different meaning.” See id.

This approach maintains the integrity of the agreement, ensuring that terms are interpreted as they are commonly understood.

Holistic Interpretation of the Contract

No single term is given overriding importance on its own; instead, all terms are viewed in the context of the entire agreement:

“We do not give any single provision, taken alone, controlling effect; rather, we consider all provisions with reference to the entire instrument.” See id.

The Role of Clear Language

The plain language of the contract is prioritized over any claims about unstated intentions:

“A contract’s plain language controls, not what one side or the other alleges they intended to say but did not.” See Great Am. Ins. Co. v. Primo, 512 S.W.3d 890, 893 (Tex. 2017).

This reinforces the importance of clear and precise language in drafting agreements.

Review Standard

Contract interpretations are reviewed without deference to prior interpretations:

“We construe contracts under a de novo standard of review.” See Barrow-Shaver Res., 590 S.W.3d at 479.

This means that the court independently reviews the contract’s language without relying on previous interpretations.

Determining Ambiguity

A contract is considered clear if it can be given a precise legal meaning:

“If a contract is worded in such a way that it can be given a definite or certain legal meaning, the contract is not ambiguous and courts construe the contract as a matter of law.” See id.; Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 393 (Tex. 1983).

Enforcement of Clear Contracts

Courts enforce the plain terms of a clear contract and do not allow outside evidence to change its meaning:

“Courts enforce an unambiguous contract as written and will not receive parol evidence for the purpose of creating an ambiguity or to give the contract a meaning different from that which its language imports.” See David J. Sacks, P.C. v. Haden, 266 S.W.3d 447, 450 (Tex. 2008) (per curiam).

When Ambiguity Arises

If the contract can reasonably be interpreted in more than one way, it is considered ambiguous:

“Only where a contract is ambiguous may a court consider the parties’ interpretation and admit extraneous evidence to determine the true meaning of the instrument.” See id.

Ambiguity allows the court to look beyond the written words to understand the parties’ true intentions.

Evaluating Differing Interpretations

Not all disagreements about interpretation indicate ambiguity:

“Contract language is not ambiguous simply because it is unclear or because the parties assert forceful and diametrically opposing interpretations.” See Title Res. Guar. Co. v. Lighthouse Church & Ministries, 589 S.W.3d 226, 232 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 3, 2019, no pet.) (citing In re D. Wilson Constr. Co., 196 S.W.3d 774, 781 (Tex. 2006) (orig. proceeding)).

Legal Determination of Ambiguity

Whether a contract is ambiguous is a legal issue for the court to decide:

“Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law for the court to decide.” See First Bank v. Brumitt, 519 S.W.3d 95, 105 (Tex. 2017).

This decision is made by considering the entire contract and the circumstances at the time it was made:

“This question must be decided by examining the contract as a whole in light of the circumstances present when the contract was entered.” See Anglo-Dutch Petroleum Int’l, Inc. v. Greenberg Peden, P.C., 352 S.W.3d 445, 449–50 (Tex. 2011).

Considering Surrounding Context

Courts may consider the context in which the contract was made to understand its terms better:

“The Texas Supreme Court has clarified when courts may consider surrounding circumstances and parol evidence when construing a contract. Courts may consider facts and circumstances including the commercial or other setting in which the contract was negotiated and other objectively determinable factors that give context to the parties’ transaction.” See Americo Life, Inc. v. Myer, 440 S.W.3d 18, 22 (Tex. 2014).

This context can provide valuable insights into the parties’ intentions at the time of the agreement.

Limited Use of Extrinsic Evidence

Extrinsic evidence is used to interpret ambiguous terms, not to create ambiguity:

“While evidence of circumstances can be used to inform the contract text and render it capable of only one meaning, extrinsic evidence can be considered only to interpret an ambiguous writing, not to create ambiguity.” See Kachina Pipeline, 471 S.W.3d at 450.

The court focuses on clear expressions of intent, not on alleged intentions not reflected in the contract:

“Objective manifestations of intent control, not what one side or the other alleged they intended to say but did not.” See URI, Inc. v. Kleberg Cnty., 543 S.W.3d 755, 763–64 (Tex. 2018).

Courts do not add or change terms under the guise of interpretation:

“We cannot rewrite a contract or add to its language under the guise of interpreting it.” See Calvert v. Crawley, No. 01-20-00105-CV, 2022 WL 1462799, at *8 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] May 10, 2022, pet. denied) (mem. op.).

Practical Implications

“Inartful drafting does not alone render a contractual provision ambiguous.” See In re D. Wilson Const. Co., 196 S.W.3d at 781.

Ambiguity is present when language allows for multiple reasonable interpretations:

“As noted, an ambiguity results when the intention of the parties is expressed in language that is susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning.” See Providence Land Servs., LLC, v. Jones, 353 S.W.3d 358, 543 (Tex. App.—Eastland 2011, no pet.); Universal Health Servs., Inc., 121 S.W.3d at 746.

Courts do not modify agreements to include terms not originally agreed upon:

“Courts do not rewrite contracts to insert provisions that the parties could have included.” See LG Ins. Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Leick, 378 S.W.3d 632, 638 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2012, pet. denied).

This principle ensures that parties are bound by the terms they expressly agreed upon.

Conclusion

Understanding how Texas courts decide whether the terms of property division in a divorce are clear or ambiguous can significantly impact the outcome of your case. This issue becomes particularly relevant when there is a dispute over enforcing the property division terms in the final decree. By ensuring your property settlement agreements are clearly drafted and reflect your intentions, you can better protect your interests and avoid potential legal disputes. Clear agreements provide a solid foundation for enforcement, while ambiguous terms may open the door to interpretative challenges and the introduction of extraneous evidence. This highlights the importance of precise language and comprehensive drafting in marital property settlements.

To retain an experienced Texas divorce lawyer for your divorce or child custody case in DallasDentonCollin or Rockwall County, please schedule a consultation with us today.