Johnson v. Snow, 119794

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Writing for the CourtKANE, V.C.J.
Citation2022 OK 86
PartiesARNOLD H. JOHNSON, Plaintiff/Appellee, v. DIRK M. SNOW, an individual, and DUFF M. SNOW, an individual, Defendants/Appellants, and INVESTMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA, INC., a foreign corporation, and LPL FINANCIAL, LLC, a limited liability company and successor in interest to INVESTMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA, INC., Defendants.
Docket Number119794
Decision Date01 November 2022

2022 OK 86

ARNOLD H. JOHNSON, Plaintiff/Appellee,
v.

DIRK M. SNOW, an individual, and DUFF M. SNOW, an individual, Defendants/Appellants,

and INVESTMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA, INC., a foreign corporation, and LPL FINANCIAL, LLC, a limited liability company and successor in interest to INVESTMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA, INC., Defendants.

No. 119794

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

November 1, 2022


ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF GRADY COUNTY, STATE OF OKLAHOMA HONORABLE KORY KIRKLAND, DISTRICT JUDGE

¶0 While divorce proceedings between Plaintiff/Appellee Arnold H. Johnson (Husband) and Jacquelyn K. Johnson (Wife) were pending, Wife changed the primary beneficiary of her individual retirement account (IRA) from Husband to her adult children, Defendants/Appellants Dirk M. Snow and Duff M. Snow (collectively, Children). She also opened a new individual transfer on death (TOD) account and designated Children as the primary beneficiaries. Wife died before the divorce was granted, and the action abated. Thereafter, Husband filed the underlying declaratory judgment action to enforce the automatic temporary injunction entered in the divorce action. The district court concluded that the IRA and the funds used to open the TOD account were marital property and, therefore, Wife's acts violated the automatic temporary injunction, 43 O.S.2011 § 110 (A)(1)(a), and were ineffective. The district court granted summary judgment to Husband and ordered that he be reinstated as the primary beneficiary of Wife's IRA and awarded the proceeds of the TOD account. Children appealed. We hold that when the dissolution of marriage action abated, the district court was deprived of its jurisdiction to enforce the automatic temporary injunction. It is undisputed that Children were designated as the primary beneficiaries at the time of Wife's death and, therefore, they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Paul M. Kolker, Edmond, Oklahoma, and Christian M. Zeaman, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellants.

George H. Brown, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellee.

KANE, V.C.J.

¶1 The threshold issue on appeal is whether the district court can enforce the automatic temporary injunction, 43 O.S. O.S.2011 § 110 (A)(1), after a dissolution of marriage action abates due to the death of one spouse. We hold that it cannot.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2 The material facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff/Appellee Arnold H. Johnson (Husband) and Jacquelyn K. Johnson (Wife) were married in 1996. In 2015, Wife designated Husband as the primary beneficiary of her traditional individual retirement account (IRA) with Investment Centers of America, Inc (ICA). On February 9, 2017, Husband filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. The automatic temporary injunction restrained the parties from "transferring, encumbering, concealing, or in any way disposing of, without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, any marital property, except in the usual course of business...." 43 O.S. § 110 (A)(1)(a). An Agreed Temporary Order was entered on April 12, 2017. The Agreed Temporary Order provided that the automatic temporary injunction should remain in full force and effect.

¶3 On September 5, 2017, Wife opened an individual transfer on death account (TOD account) with ICA. Using a check from their joint checking account, Wife made an opening deposit of $32,000.00. Wife designated her adult children, Defendants/Appellants Dirk M. Snow and Duff M. Snow (collectively, Children), as the primary beneficiaries of the TOD account.

¶4 On September 8, 2017, Wife changed the beneficiary designation of her IRA by removing Husband and designating Children as the primary beneficiaries.

¶5 Wife died on November 2, 2017, and the divorce action abated. It is undisputed that Husband and Wife were still married when she died. No divorce had been granted by the court. At the time of Wife's death, Children were designated as the primary beneficiaries of both the IRA and the TOD account.

¶6 On July 24, 2018, Husband filed the underlying declaratory judgment action against Children and Defendants ICA and LPL Financial, LLC, as successor in interest to ICA. [1] Husband sought declaratory and injunctive relief as to his rights in Wife's IRA. Husband and Children filed competing motions for summary judgment. Husband's position was that Wife's acts of changing the beneficiary of the IRA and opening the new TOD account with joint funds violated the automatic temporary injunction, 43 O.S. § 110 (A)(1)(a), and the Agreed Temporary Order. Husband argued Wife's acts were void and that the trial court should "right a wrong and remedy an injustice based upon equitable considerations" by reinstating him as beneficiary of the IRA and awarding him the proceeds of the TOD account. Children argued they were entitled to summary judgment because the court had no authority to enforce the automatic temporary injunction or divide the marital estate after the divorce action abated. Children also argued that, even if the court had jurisdiction to enforce the automatic temporary injunction, changing the beneficiary of the IRA and opening the TOD account did not violate the automatic temporary injunction.

¶7 The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Husband, finding that the IRA and TOD account were marital property; that "there is no sole owner of said marital property, particularly in the midst of a divorce where there is a temporary injunction in place"; that Wife's actions of changing the beneficiary of the IRA and opening the TOD account were "ineffective"; that, as a result, Husband remained the primary beneficiary of the IRA; that Husband is the owner of all funds in the IRA and the TOD account; and that Husband is entitled to immediate possession of all the funds. Children appealed. This Court retained the appeal on its own motion.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8 Summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Rickard v. Coulimore, 2022 OK 9, ¶ 4, 505 P.3d 920, 922. Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine controversy as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. In this case, the material facts are not in dispute. [2] Therefore, only a question of law is involved. Appellate courts have plenary, independent and nondeferential authority to determine whether the trial court erred in its legal rulings. See Fanning v. Brown, 2004 OK 7, ¶ 8, 85 P.3d 841, 845.

ANALYSIS

¶9 Children submit eighteen issues on appeal in their Amended Petition in Error. However, this Court can resolve all allegations of error by addressing just four questions.

¶10 First, did Wife's death and the abatement of the dissolution of marriage action deprive the district court of jurisdiction to enforce the automatic temporary injunction? The threshold issue is not whether Wife violated the automatic temporary injunction; it is whether the trial court could enforce the automatic temporary injunction after the divorce action abated. [3]

¶11 It has long been understood in Oklahoma that a cause of action for dissolution of marriage abates upon the death of either spouse before the entry of a final decree or final judgment. See, e.g., Pellow v. Pellow, 1985 OK 88, ¶ 23, 714 P.2d 593, 597-98 ; Chastain v. Posey, 1983 OK 46, ¶ 6, 665 P.2d 1179, 1181; Mabry v. Baird, 1950 OK 132, ¶ 13, 219 P.2d 234, 239. This Court has said that "[a] cause of action for a divorce is purely personal, and it has been held that such a cause of action terminates on the death of either spouse before the entry of the final decree." Pellow, 1985 OK 88, ¶ 23, 714 P.2d at 597. Fairly recently, this Court clarified that the parties' divorce or dissolution of marriage is immediately effective at the time it is pronounced by the court even if property issues remain undecided and a journal entry has not been filed. See Alexander v. Alexander, 2015 OK 52, ¶¶ 2, 12, 357 P.3d 481, 482-84 (interpreting 12 O.S.2011 § 696.2 (E)). It follows that a cause of action for dissolution of marriage abates if either spouse dies before the divorce is pronounced.

¶12 When one spouse dies before the divorce is granted, "the trial court is deprived of its jurisdiction." Pellow, 1985 OK 88, ¶ 23, 714 P.2d at 597. That is because death dissolved the marriage. Id.; Mabry, 1950 OK 132, ¶ 13, 219 P.2d at 239. There are two ways to dissolve a marriage: the death of one spouse or a decree of dissolution of marriage. Dissolution of marriage or divorce is a status determination. See Pellow, 1985 OK 88, ¶ 25, 714 P.2d at 598. Death, rather than a decree, determined the surviving spouse's unmarried status. Because there is no longer a marriage for the court to dissolve by decree, there is no longer a justiciable controversy. The court is no longer able to grant the relief requested. As a result, the district court is deprived of its jurisdiction. [4]

¶13 If, on the other hand, one party dies after the divorce has been granted, the cause of action does not abate, and the court retains jurisdiction to divide marital property. See Alexander, 2015 OK 52, ¶¶ 7, 18, 357 P.3d at 483, 486; Swick v. Swick, 1993 OK 151, ¶ 7, 864 P.2d 819, 821. The party's death has no legal effect on the status determination of divorce. See Swick, 1993 OK 151, ¶ 6, 864 P.2d at 821 (citing Pellow, 1985 OK 88, ¶¶ 23-25, 714 P.2d at 597-98).

¶14 Critical to our analysis is the undisputed material fact that Husband and Wife were married at the time of Wife's death. The trial court never granted a divorce. [5] The parties agree--and we reach the same legal conclusion--that when Wife died the dissolution of marriage action abated as a matter of law. When the action abated, the court was deprived of its jurisdiction to proceed with the dissolution of marriage.

¶15 The parties disagree, however, as to whether the district court was also deprived of its jurisdiction to enforce...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT