The old children’s rhyme taught us that words couldn’t physically hurt us. However, the one rule lawyers should know is that a choice of words does matter. The recent case of Ertl v. Ertl, 871 N.W.2d 410 (Minn. Ct. App. 2015), involved an appeal from a District Court’s determination that an agreement for the division of property, dictating a division of retirement benefits, included a similar division of disability benefits.
In Ertl, the parties agreed to divide “retirement assets.” The wife returned to court looking for a portion of her ex-spouse’s disability payments. Her argument was that the two payments are virtually “indistinguishable” from each other. On appeal, the court disagreed. Counsel for the wife argued that, as the benefits for both the disability and pension were both payable from the same defined benefit pension plan, the stipulated division applied to both retirement and disability benefits. The appellate court disagreed, forcing the parties to stand by their choice of words. In support of its ruling, the court relied on other cases discussing when an agreement included disability benefits. It held that an interest in a “pension plan” included the disability benefits paid under it; but that the division of “retirement benefits” before it did not.
The decision represents an effort to uphold the “sanctity of the parties’ stipulated judgment.” However, if you are drafting such an agreement and want the broadest interpretation possible, it is advisable to refer to footnote 3 in the court’s opinion, where the court lists more examples of (un)fortuitous drafting.
For more information on how courts in Minnesota and other jurisdictions interpret parties’ private agreements, we invite you to review the links below to Legal Issues from Litigation Pathfinder.
- Whether an ‘extra-judicial agreement’ regarding spousal maintenance is enforceable in Family Court in Minnesota?
- Under Oklahoma law, may a court in a marital dissolution action award a share of a spouse’s gross federal civil service retirement benefits?
- Under California law, what rules does a court follow when interpreting the terms of a contract?
- Under Minnesota law, how does the court interpret an ambiguous agreement?
- Issue: In Alabama, how are contractual ambiguities in oral agreements construed?
- What is the standard for summary judgment related to the construction or interpretation of a written contract in New Jersey?