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Early Christmas Gift to One Litigant from the Court of Appeals

by | Dec 21, 2021 | The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog |

The Court of Appeals issued a single opinion today, and with it delivered an early Christmas present to the appellant in Michael B. Yourko v. Lee Ann B. Yourko.  At least until the Court of Appeals starts hearing estate and trust cases, you can probably guess by the case style that this is a domestic relations case. The issue is whether the husband could seek to modify a final decree, equitable distribution order and division of military pension order under the trial court’s original jurisdiction.  The trial court ruled that it no longer had jurisdiction and dismissed the husband’s motion for modification of these orders.  The appeal is a Gordian knot of procedural issues that takes 18 pages to unravel, but the ultimate result is that the Court of Appeals finds that the trial court still had jurisdiction to consider the motion and remands the case for it to do so.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the trial court will rule in husband’s favor, but at least he will get his day in court.

As my gift to you, dear readers, I will try to shorten the 18 pages of analysis to three paragraphs.  Let’s start with the obvious — were the orders final in form and thus subject to appeal?  The Court says yes, clearly they entered judgment and left nothing to be done.  Next, were they subject to revision nunc pro tunc under 8.-01-428 due to a clerical error or mutual mistake of fact?  No, says the Court of Appeals, the order was entered exactly as everyone had agreed.  So what’s the beef?

Well, as it turns out, the military pension order, though final and not erroneous in form was wrong in content in that it violated certain provisions of federal law with respect to the division of husband’s military pension, and, thus, at least that much of the order was void ab initio, not merely voidable, because the state court does not have jurisdiction to enter an order contrary to federal law on military pensions.  Now, in domestic cases, unlike most other forms of litigation, the “final judgment” is made up of several different orders which are entered at different times during the proceedings.  Typically, the orders already entered remain under the jurisdiction of the trial court until the very last one is entered — so, one could argue that this order is the “final order” even though technically it is not.

The Court of Appeals notes that there is a split in prior case law as to whether an order (or, in this case, the collective orders dealing with the pension, equitable distribution and the final decree) can be selectively void — that is, void only to those parts that were beyond the court’s jurisdiction — or if a void provision is in the order, is the entire order void.  The Court concludes that the issue is case specific — if the void aspects do not impact the non-void aspects, the case can be remanded solely to correct the void aspects.  But here, the division of the pension would necessarily impact other decisions of the trial court with respect the equitable distribution, support, etc., so the entire order with respect to those elements is void and on remand the circuit court can make what ever adjustments are necessary to correct the judgment.