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VALIDITY OF DECREE DUE TO A MISTAKE OF THE LAW
© 1998 National Legal Research Group, Inc.
MISSOURI: Valdez v. Thierry, 963 S.W.2d 459 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998).
The parties' 1987 dissolution decree was enforceable despite an allegedly invalid provision classifying the husband's engineering education as marital property and awarding the wife a percentage of the husband's future income.
This case makes the simple but important point that any errors by the trial court in classifying and distributing property must be challenged by way of direct appeal rather than by waiting and asserting the errors as a defense to enforcement proceedings later on.
In the parties' 1987 dissolution decree, the trial court concluded that the husband's education as an engineer was marital property. As the wife's interest in his education, the trial court awarded her 5% of his gross income derived from his employment. The husband did not appeal the judgment or pay the wife a portion of his income. The wife eventually filed a motion to enforce that provision, and in 1996 the trial court entered judgment against the husband for over $23,560. On appeal from that judgment, the husband contended that the dissolution decree was void in that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to divide his future income. A spouse's future income does not fall within the definition of marital property, he argued. The wife countered that the alleged error in the dissolution decree was a mistake of law which should have been challenged on direct appeal from the dissolution decree.
The Missouri Court of Appeals held that the dissolution decree was not void and could be enforced against the husband. A judgment is void only if the rendering court did not have jurisdiction to enter it, and the issuing court has jurisdiction if it has judicial authority over the subject matter, judicial authority over the parties, and judicial authority to enter the judgment. The husband here did not claim that the trial court in the dissolution proceeding lacked jurisdiction over the parties or lacked jurisdiction to divide their marital property, the court pointed out.
Instead, the husband essentially claimed that the trial court misapplied the law in classifying and dividing his education as marital property. If any mistake occurred, it was a mistake of law which did not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction. Moreover, the alleged mistake of law should have been addressed on direct appeal, the court said. A trial court may decide the issues erroneously without losing jurisdiction, the court emphasized.
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