Wife died after the Trial Court granted her request to be divorced because she was terminally ill, and pronounced in open court that the parties were divorced. Wife’s death was before reaching a property settlement with Husband, and before the Journal Entry had been filed, divorcing the parties.
Husband filed a Motion to Dismiss on the grounds that after Wife died the Court lacked jurisdiction to proceed with the Dissolution of Marriage. Wife’s successors filed a response objecting to dismissal. The Trial Court granted the motion and dismissed the action. Court Civil Appeals affirmed the Trial Court. The Oklahoma Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The issue was whether the parties were divorced at the time pronounced by the Trial Court even thought property issues had not been settled and where no Journal Entry as to the Court’s order divorcing the parties had been filed.
Facts: After nearly forty years of marriage, Wife filed for divorce on the ground of incompatibility and Husband filed an answer agreeing that the two were incompatible and they should be granted a divorce. Subsequently, Wife filed a Motion for a Grant of Divorce, wherein she explained she had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and had only a short time to live. Husband objected, arguing that statutory law requires that the divorce take place at the same time as the division of marital assets.
Wife responded that she and Husband had accumulated millions of dollars in properties during the marriage, most of which was titled under various corporations in Husband’s name, and she alleged that Husband had withdrawn over $200,000.00 from an account solely in her name, and that Husband was trying to force her into a quick settlement by delaying the divorce process so that she “may have to face the possibility of passing away before she can have her day in Court.”
At the hearing of Wife’s motion for divorce, the Judge pronounced in court that the two were “divorced from each other henceforth.” The Court memorialized his decision in a hand written court minute, which the Judge and both parties and attorneys signed. The Court ordered the parties to present a Journal Entry to the Court within ten days, and to submit to mediation as to property issues in five days. Neither party prepared the Journal Entry nor did they go to mediation.
Approximately six weeks later the Wife passed away. Eight days later Husband filed the Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the death of a party to a divorce proceeding abates the course of action and deprives the Court of jurisdiction. The successors of the Wife filed a response. The Trial granted Husband’s Motion to Dismiss and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Issue stated by Supreme Court: Was the divorce of the parties’ final at the time it was pronounced by the Trial Court, or must a Journal Entry be filed before the divorce is final? Keeping in mind that under Oklahoma jurisprudence a court minute is not an appealable final order.
Although, generally, a judgment is not enforceable in whole or part unless and until it is signed by the Court and filed, Oklahoma law carves out an exception for divorce proceedings by statute, the adjudication of any issue shall be “enforceable when pronounced by the Court.” Because the District Court in this case pronounced the divorce of the parties in Court, the divorce was enforceable at that time, thereby ending the parties’ marriage immediately. An otherwise enforceable grant of divorce can be stayed, also provided by statute, if a party appeals the decision within the statutory period. The Court could find no evidence that an appeal was filed in regard to the divorce itself or the order to divide the property. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overruled a Court of Civil Appeals case of Whitmire v. Whitmire, 2003 OK CIV APP 87, 78 P.3d 556, with similar facts but a different outcome, which had caused considerable confusion as to when the divorce is final if a party dies before all issues are resolved.
Finally, the Supreme Court held that Oklahoma law allows issues to be bifurcated and presented in separate proceedings in Dissolution of Marriage. This had been a point of confusion within the Oklahoma Bar because of the 2003 Court of Civil Appeals case, which many believed misstated the law.
The Dissolution of the marriage was effective when pronounced by the Trial Court, but would not have been appealable unless the Journal Entry of Judgment had been properly filed.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court remanded the case to the Trial Court to divide the property.
David Echols is a senior attorney at Echols & Associates in Oklahoma City. Practicing matrimonial law in 1978, he is an expert in family law, divorce, and child custody issues. www.echolslawfirm.com