Randlett v. Randlett

CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
Citation401 A.2d 1008
PartiesMargaret H. RANDLETT v. Yeaton D. RANDLETT.
Decision Date31 May 1979

Page 1008

401 A.2d 1008
Margaret H. RANDLETT
Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.
May 31, 1979.

Page 1009

Grossman, Faber & Miller by Barry M. Faber, (orally), Rockland, for plaintiff.

Eaton, Glass & Marsano by Francis C. Marsano, (orally), Belfast, for defendant.



This appeal raises the question of the propriety of a declaratory judgment, to be entered during the lives of the spouses, which would decide whether a separation agreement negotiated by the parties and incorporated into their divorce decree will obligate the defendant-husband's estate to continue making alimony payments to the plaintiff-wife in the event that she survives him. Since we conclude, contrary to the rulings of the courts below, that a justiciable controversy exists, we sustain the appeal and remand the case for further consideration on the merits.

By a decree entered April 2, 1976, the District Court granted the plaintiff a divorce from the defendant on the ground of cruel and abusive treatment. The separation agreement which the parties had negotiated was made a part of the decree by reference. Paragraph 2D of the agreement obligated the defendant to pay $150.00 per week "so long as (the plaintiff) remains unmarried and alive."

On January 14, 1977, the defendant moved pursuant to M.R.Civ.P. 80(j) to modify the divorce judgment to provide that his obligation to pay alimony would cease upon his death. After a hearing, the District Court, on April 1, 1977, denied the motion on the ground that "no change of circumstances (had) occurred since (the) date of (the divorce) judgment." One week later, the defendant moved pursuant to M.R.Civ.P. 59(e) to alter or amend the April 1 order. Coupled with this motion and filed on the same day was a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment made in accordance with District Court Civil Rule 57 and the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, codified at 14 M.R.S.A. §§ 5951-5963. As was true of the January 14 motion, the complaint stated that the defendant interpreted the agreement to mean that his obligation to pay alimony would cease at the time of his death. The complaint went on to state that the plaintiff had orally declared to the defendant that she interpreted the agreement differently: In her view, the obligation would survive the decease of the defendant.

After hearing oral argument, the District Court denied both the motion and the request for declaratory relief citing the following reasons:

There has been no change in circumstances of the parties since the date of the divorce judgment of April 2, 1976, and no other basis on which to base any alteration or amendment of said judgment.

There is no justiciable controversy between the parties on which a declaratory judgment may legally be issued.

Several contingencies may in the future occur to affect the legal relationship of the parties with respect to the liability of the defendant under the divorce judgment of April 2, 1976:

(1) Margaret H. Randlett may marry before the death of Yeaton D. Randlett;

(2) Margaret H. Randlett, while still unmarried, may predecease Yeaton D. Randlett;

Page 1010

(3) Margaret H. Randlett may marry after the death of Yeaton D. randlett.

The question of necessary construction of a judgment and contract (made a part of the judgment by reference) may never arise because of the noted contingencies affecting rights of the parties.

A declaratory judgment entered now would not be dealing with a current real controversay (sic).

Noting its agreement with the decision of the District Court, the Superior Court, Waldo County, denied the ensuing appeal on March 29, 1978. This appeal followed.

It is clear that by statute, 14 M.R.S.A. § 5953, and rule, D.C.Civ.R. 57, the District Court is empowered to grant declaratory relief in appropriate circumstances. That established, we reach the question of whether the court could issue a declaratory judgment in this instance. It is important to note that the District Court's decree incorporated by reference the parties' separation agreement and thus transformed the agreement into a judgment of that court. See Lindsley v. Lindsley, Me., 374 A.2d 311, 316-17 (1977); Coe v. Coe, 145 Me. 71, 71 A.2d 514 (1950).

So postured, we confront the question of whether a litigant is entitled to seek declaratory relief to clarify the terms of a prior judgment. Although jurisdictions are divided over this question as a general proposition, Compare Mills v. Mills, 512 P.2d 143 (Okl.1973), And Speaker v. Lawler, 463 S.W.2d 741 (Tex.Civ.App.1971), With Meeks v. Town of Hoover, 286 Ala. 373, 240 So.2d 125 (1970), Minne v. City of Mishawaka, 251 Ind. 166, 240 N.E.2d 56 (1968), And National-Ben Franklin Fire Insurance Co. v. Camden Trust Co., 36 N.J.Super. 249, 115 A.2d 589 (1955), we find that on the facts of this case declaratory relief was properly invoked.

We note that recent decisions of this Court demonstrate that decrees attempting to regulate the future conduct of parties often reveal themselves to be susceptible to varying interpretations. Where an honest disagreement as to the meaning of a decree surfaces, the aggrieved party frequently turns to the rendering court and asks for a clarification of the decree. By doing so, the party does not seek to retry the facts of the case or to reverse the court's decision. This can only be accomplished by appeal or under M.R.Civ.P. 59. Rather, the party merely wants to know what is expected of him under the court's decree. In such cases, allowing a court the power to render a clarification would appear to be sound public policy...

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23 cases
  • Harmon v. Harmon
    • United States
    • Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
    • August 23, 1979
    ...v. Hall", 91 Conn. 514, 100 A. 441 (1917); "Cunningham v. Edward, 52 Ohio App. 61, 3 N.E.2d 58 (1936). 3 Cf. Randlett v. Randlett, Me., 401 A.2d 1008, 1012 (1979) (preservation of important evidence a factor in sanctioning declaratory relief in a controversy as to obligation of a husband's ......
  • Perry v. Hartford Acc. and Indem. Co.
    • United States
    • Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
    • August 13, 1984
    ...rule, M.R.Civ.P. 57, the Superior Court is authorized to grant declaratory relief in appropriate circumstances. See Randlett v. Randlett, 401 A.2d 1008, 1010 (Me.1979). The Superior Court's exercise of discretion in granting or denying that relief is accorded deference on appeal. See Easter......
  • Raymond v. Raymond
    • United States
    • Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
    • April 24, 1984
    ...and clarify its own judgments and orders is beyond question. See Bowley v. Bowley, 440 A.2d 332, 333 (Me.1982); Randlett v. Randlett, 401 A.2d 1008, 1010 (Me.1979); Boothbay Harbor Condominium v. Whitten, 387 A.2d 1117, 1120 The husband makes two arguments as to why our affirmance of the se......
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    • Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
    • June 14, 1993
    ...or status damages plaintiff's pecuniary or material interests and establishes a condition of justiciability.' " Randlett v. Randlett, 401 A.2d 1008, 1011 (Me.1979) (quoting Roberts v. Roberts, 90 Ill.App.2d 184, 234 N.E.2d 372, 374 We next turn to the issue of standing. The Charter Commissi......
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