Facts: Husband and Wife were divorced after 12 years of marriage.
The trial court divided 68 acres of marital property into three separate tracts. Wife was awarded the marital home with three acres. Because Wife’s mother occupied a mobile home located on the 68-acre tract, Wife was also awarded 10 acres where the mobile home is located. The court order specified that the 10 acres “shall be the 10 acres immediately surrounding [the] mobile home.” The trial court also granted Wife an easement for ingress and egress to the 10-acre tract of land immediately surrounding the mobile home.
Husband was awarded the remaining 55 acres.
The trial court ordered the parties to each pay one-half of the cost to survey and divide the property as directed.
Husband appealed, challenging the trial court’s evaluation of the marital assets and its distribution of the marital estate. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Husband then attempted to collaborate with Wife to procure the ordered survey; however, Husband soon discovered that Wife had ordered a survey unbeknownst to Husband. Wife’s survey severed a single contiguous 13-acre tract of land, the majority of which surrounded the marital home and contained the entire road frontage.
Husband filed a motion for contempt and for a new survey.
The trial court found that Wife was not in contempt and denied Husband’s motion for new survey.
Husband filed a motion to alter or amend. At the hearing on that motion, Husband tendered two surveys: Wife’s original survey and a second survey procured by Husband.
The trial court denied Husband’s motion to alter or amend and held that Wife’s survey was consistent with the trial court’s ruling in the divorce.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Husband argued that, by adopting Wife’s survey, the trial court failed to adhere to its original order regarding the division of the real property.
Because the trial court’s ruling was affirmed on appeal, the appellate court’s decision is binding in later trials and appeals of the same case if the facts in the second trial or appeal are substantially the same as the facts in the first trial or appeal. This is called the “law of the case” doctrine.
As a general rule, the trial court is in the best position to interpret its own orders. Orders, like other written instruments, should be enforced according to their plain meaning. Thus, courts called upon to interpret orders should construe the language in the order in light of its usual, natural, and ordinary meaning. If the language in an order is clear, then the literal meaning of the language in the order controls.
The Court concluded the trial court failed to follow its own order when it adopted Wife’s survey:
From the plain and ordinary language used in the order it is clear that the trial court awarded Wife two separate tracts of land, a 10-acre tract and a three-acre tract (containing the marital residence). Concerning the 10-acre tract, the final decree of divorce specifies that Wife shall receive “the 10 acres immediately surrounding [the] mobile home.” Despite these clear mandates, Wife’s survey apportions a single contiguous 13-acre tract of land, the majority of which surrounds the marital home and contains the entire road frontage. This division of the 68-acre tract is not consistent with the trial court’s order that was affirmed on appeal. Furthermore, the final decree of divorce grants Wife an easement for ingress and egress to the 10 acre tract of land immediately surrounding the mobile home. Had the trial court intended for Wife’s portion of the property to include all of the road frontage, there would have been no need for the easement for ingress and egress. In adopting Wife’s survey, the trial court fails to follow its own previous ruling. Not only does the trial court’s adoption of Wife’s survey negate its central ruling regarding the property division in the final decree of divorce, it also creates an illogical and unjust result, whereby Husband has no road frontage to his remaining 55-acre tract and he has no express easement for access to his acreage. . . . Conversely, Husband’s survey grants Wife two separate and distinct tracts of land, each with road frontage for ingress and egress. Other than providing for an easement, which is unnecessary since both of Wife’s parcels have road frontage, Husband’s survey comports with the final decree of divorce.
Thus, the case was remanded with instructions for the trial court to adopt the survey submitted by Husband.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.