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Bayne v. Bayne

Supreme Court of Nebraska

April 12, 2019

Mick E. Bayne, appellant,
v.
Brittney J. Bayne, appellee.

         1. Divorce: Judgments: Appeal and Error. The meaning of a divorce decree presents a question of law, in connection with which an appellate court reaches a conclusion independent of the determination reached by the court below.

         2. Divorce: Property Settlement Agreements: Final Orders. A decree is a judgment, and once a decree for dissolution becomes final, its meaning, including the settlement agreement incorporated therein, is determined as a matter of law from the four corners of the decree itself.

         3. Judgments: Final Orders. It is inherent to a judgment's finality that all are bound by the original language used, and all ought to interpret the language the same way.

         4. Divorce: Judgments: Intent. The meaning of a decree must be determined from all parts thereof, read in its entirety, and must be construed as a whole so as to give effect to every word and part, if possible, and bring all of its parts into harmony as far as this can be done by fair and reasonable interpretation.

         5. Contempt. Civil contempt requires willful disobedience as an essential element.

         6. Judgments: Intent. Doubtful or ambiguous judgments are to have a reasonable intendment to do justice and avoid wrong.

         7. Divorce: Property Settlement Agreements: Equity: Appeal and Error. When interpreting an ambiguous dissolution decree, an appellate court bears in mind that an action for divorce sounds in equity and that the division of property, specifically, is based on equitable principles.

         8. Equity. Equity looks through forms to substance; a court of equity goes to the root of a matter and is not deterred by forms.

         [302 Neb. 859] 9. _ . Equity seeks the real and substantial rights of the parties and applies the remedy in such a manner as to relieve those having the controlling equities.

          Appeal from the District Court for Douglas County: Timothy P. Burns, Judge. Affirmed.

          John A. Kinney, of Kinney Mason, P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.

          James M. Buchanan, P.C., L.L.O., for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.

          FREUDENBERG, J.

         NATURE OF CASE

         This is an appeal from a declaratory judgment action in which the ex-husband sought a declaration that he was entitled to one-half of the proceeds of a home awarded to the ex-wife in the divorce decree and sold approximately 2 years later when she decided to remarry. At issue is the meaning of a provision in the dissolution decree stating that the ex-wife would "have the home refinanced into her own name within 12 months of entry of this decree" and that should she be "unable to refinance the home into her own name within 12 months, [the] house shall be listed for sale and the parties shall equally divide any costs or proc[e]eds from the sale of the home." The provision also provided that it "shall be enforceable by the contempt powers of this court." The ex-wife had refinanced the home approximately 13 months after the entry of the dissolution decree. The ex-wife was approved for refinancing within 1 year of the entry of the dissolution decree, but the bank did not schedule closing on the refinance until approximately 13 months from the entry of the dissolution decree.

         BACKGROUND

         Mick E. Bayne and Brittney J. Bayne were divorced on December 9, 2015, pursuant to a consent decree. In August [302 Neb. 860] 2017, Mick brought this declaratory judgment action seeking a judgment declaring that he was entitled to one-half of the proceeds from the sale of the marital house that was awarded to Brittney, pursuant to a contingency refinancing provision. The provision stated in relevant part:

The parties agree that [Brittney] shall receive the property as her sole and separate property, holding [Mick] harmless from any and all claims on the property. The parties shall cooperate in executing any and all documentation to effectuate the transfer of possession of the home. [Brittney] shall have the home refinanced into her own name within 12 months of entry of this decree. This provision shall be enforceable by the contempt powers of this court. Should [Brittney] be unable to refinance the home into her own name within 12 months, [the] house shall be listed for sale and the parties shall equally divide any costs or proc[e]eds from the sale of the home.

         Brittney pled the defenses of bad faith and unclean hands.

         The evidence at trial demonstrated that the marital house was purchased for $151, 500 in 2012. At the time of the divorce, the mortgage on the house was approximately $140, 000. Brittney believed the house was worth approximately $150, 000 to $160, 000 at the time of the divorce. It was undisputed that Mick had caused damage to the house before he vacated it. Brittney described that Mick had "trashed" the house. Brittney cleaned up and paid for repairs or replacement due to the damage to the drywall, flooring, railings, doors, and furniture allegedly all caused by Mick and represented by various photographs entered into evidence.

         In the property division of the dissolution decree, approving Brittney and Mick's settlement agreement, Brittney's retirement account was split equally and the marital debt was divided between Brittney and Mick. Mick kept several dirt bikes worth $4, 000 in total and a truck with approximately $12, 000 in equity. Brittney kept her car that was worth $3, 000 [302 Neb. 861] and was given the house pursuant to the provision set forth above. Brittney had obtained approval for refinancing within 12 months after entry of the dissolution decree, but did not close on the refinancing until January 13, ...


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