Facts: The parties divorced in 2007. The divorce court ruled:
If [Wife] is entitled under federal law to receive any portion of [Husband’s] military retirement benefits, then she is awarded one-half of those benefits earned during the parties’ marriage.
Husband retired from the Army in December 2014. Two months later, Wife petitioned for one-half of Husband’s military retirement pay that accrued during their marriage.
Husband responded that Wife was allowed, but not entitled, to receive a portion of his retirement benefits under federal law.
A new trial judge ruled that the original trial judge
must have intended to award the wife a portion of the husband’s military retirement benefits . . . . [T]he trial court must have meant that when the husband was eligible to receive military benefits, and if the wife then was also eligible, then she would receive one-half of those benefits.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Courts must construe the language in an order based on its usual, natural, and ordinary meaning, with the goal of giving force and effect to every word of it, if possible, and making its several parts consistent, effective, and reasonable.
When an order or judgment permits more than one interpretation, it should be interpreted in light of the context in which it was entered, as well as the other parts of the record, including the pleadings, motions, issues before the court, and arguments of counsel.
When construing orders and judgments, effect must be given to that which is clearly implied, as well as to that which is expressly stated.
Federal law permits state courts to divide a military retiree’s “disposable retired pay” as property in a divorce proceeding. Tennessee law provides that unvested pension rights that accrued during a marriage—like military retirement pay—are marital property subject to equitable division.
After reviewing the record, the Court held that the trial court correctly ruled that the original trial judge’s order intended to award Wife one-half of Husband’s military retirement pay that accrued during the marriage:
As Husband and Wife’s dispute demonstrates, the language of [the original trial judge’s] judgment . . . permits more than one interpretation . . . . Prior to [the original trial judge] entering her divorce judgment, both Husband and Wife filed [proposed divisions of marital property]. Wife requested one-half of Husband’s military retirement pay that accrued during their marriage, while Husband requested that Wife not receive one-half of his military retirement pay. Based on these requests, it is clear that [the original trial judge] intended to grant Wife’s request, not Husband’s. Had the court intended to prevent Wife from receiving a portion of Husband’s military retirement pay, it could have easily issued a judgment stating that Wife would not receive any portion of Husband’s military retirement that accrued during their marriage or that each party would retain their retirement benefits free and clear of any claim from the other party, as Husband suggested in his [proposed division of marital property]. Husband essentially asks this court to hold that [the original trial judge] effectively stated in her judgment that “Wife will not receive one-half of Husband’s military retirement pay unless federal law requires otherwise.” This we decline to do because . . . we do not believe this was [the original trial judge’s] intention.
Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.