This memorandum is in response to your request for an opinion on the effective date
under Texas law of the divorce between the number holder F~ (the NH) and his spouse Subrena
(the spouse) in order to establish the date Nikedrek’s (the stepchild’s) stepchild
benefits terminated on NH’s accounts. Specifically, you asked whether the divorce’s
effective date is the date of the December 10, 2012 grant of divorce or the date of
the October 8, 2013 signed decree. The presiding judge granted NH’s petition for divorce
following a hearing on December 10, 2012, but did not sign the Final Decree of Divorce
until October 8, 2013.
It is our opinion that under Texas law the divorce between the NH and the spouse was
final on December 10, 2012; the date the judge evinced a present intent to render
a full, final, and complete judgment following a hearing. Thus, December 10, 2012,
should be used to determine the stepchild’s benefit termination date.
On June 17, 2011, the NH filed a petition for divorce from the spouse. On December
10, 2012, the presiding judge held a divorce hearing in the 145th Judicial District
Court of Texas in Nacogdoches County. According to the writing on the docket sheet,
the judge granted the divorce on December 10, 2012, and noted that the divorce was
“to be filed” by Noel, the spouse’s attorney. This office contacted the district court
and obtained a copy of the divorce docket sheet, which contained handwritten notes
from the divorce hearing.
The bottom of the docket sheet contained instructions on property settlement, including
that the NH would pay the spouse $1,000, that the spouse was entitled to either $38,000
or one-half of the NH’s retirement accounts, and that the NH and the spouse would
each keep any items in their possession and pay any debts in their respective names.
The docket sheet does not indicate that the spouse’s attorney filed a divorce decree. A
letter dated June 11, 2013, from the NH’s attorney to the district court, states that
the court had scheduled an entry of judgment hearing for July 11, 2013, but the district
clerk’s docket report shows that the court did not hold the hearing. The docket report
also shows that on June 24, 2013, the NH filed a motion for a new trial. A letter
dated July 11, 2013, from the NH’s attorney to the court, indicates that the court
scheduled a hearing on the NH’s motion for a new trial for August 14, 2013, but the
docket report does not state how the court ruled on this motion.
On August 2, 2013, the agency sent the spouse a notice that the stepchild no longer
qualified for Social Security benefits because the spouse and the NH had divorced
in January 2013. On August 16, 2013, the agency notified the spouse that it had overpaid
the stepchild $2,634.00 in stepchild benefits on the NH’s account. Correspondence
from the agency to the spouse dated August 16, 2013, indicates that the agency calculated
this overpayment as of August 2013; we assume that you are satisfied with this date
and calculation. On September 15, 2013, the agency received the spouse’s request for
reconsideration of the overpayment, in which she asserted that the stepchild did not
have an overpayment because the NH and the spouse’s divorce was not final until August
14, 2013, when she went to court for a final hearing.
On October 8, 2013, the presiding judge signed a Final Decree of Divorce. The decree
“ORDERED AND DECREED that [the NH and the spouse] are divorced.” The decree provided
for a division of the marital estate. Consistent with the handwritten notes on the
December 2012 docket sheet, the decree awarded the spouse $1,000, due from the NH.
Also consistent with the handwritten notes on the December 2012 docket sheet, the
decree awarded the spouse one-half of the NH’s retirement benefits, but provided that
the NH could discharge that award with a $38,000 payment to the spouse. The decree
stated that each party was awarded whatever property they had sole control over, and
it itemized the various types of properties subject to this provision, including jewelry,
appliances, and sums of cash. Additionally, the decree imposed record-keeping requirements
on the parties and specified how the parties were to file their taxes in the year
of the divorce.
The decree’s last section was labelled “Date of Judgment” and stated that:
This divorce judicially PRONOUNCED AND RENDERED in court at Nacogdoches, Nacogdoches
County, Texas, on December 10, 2012, and further noted on the court’s docket sheet
on the same date, but signed on October 8, 2013.
The district clerk certified the decree on October 9, 2013.
The Social Security Act provides that a number holder’s stepchild may be eligible
for Social Security benefits based on that number holder’s account. 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(d),
416(e); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(1), 404.357; Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00306.230A.3b. If the number holder and the child’s natural parent subsequently divorce, the child’s
eligibility for benefits ends the month in which the divorce becomes final. 42 U.S.C.
§ 402(d)(1)(H); 20 C.F.R. § 404.352(b)(7); POMS GN 00306.230A.3b.
The Social Security Act provides that State law controls the determination of marital
relationships. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(h)(1)(A)(i), 1382c(d). A Texas court renders a judgment
of divorce when the court makes an official announcement, either in writing or orally
in open court, of its decision on the matter. See Rawlins v. Rawlins, 324 S.W.3d 852, 855 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2010, no pet.); Memorandum from
Regional Chief Counsel, Dallas, to Regional Comm., Dallas, Texas Law Effective Date of Divorce, at 2 (December 19, 2001).
A divorce is final in Texas on the date that a court renders an official announcement
of its decision. This announcement may be oral or written. If oral, the judge must
evince a present, as opposed to a future, intent to render a full, final, and complete
judgment at the point in time. POMS GN 00305.165B.45; Texas State Law Effective Date of Divorce (September 4, 2007).
Thus, the issue is whether on December 10, 2012, the judge evinced a present intent
to render a full, final, and complete judgment at that time. Although the evidence
does not include a transcript of the December 10, 2012 hearing, handwritten notes
on the docket sheet indicate that the judge granted the divorce between the NH and
the spouse on that date. See Escobar v. Escobar, 711 S.W.2D 230, 232 (Tex. 1986) (“[d]ocket entries are some evidence of a rendered
judgment and its contents”) (citation omitted). The judge did not sign the docket
sheet, but a signed written judgment is not a prerequisite to the finality of a judgment. See Dunn v. Dunn, 439 S.W.2d 830, 832-33 (Tex. 1969).
The docket sheet contained specific provisions regarding the division of marital property,
which final judgment of divorces include. See Underhill v. Underhill, 614 S.W.2d 178, 181 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1981, writ refused). The handwritten
notes that reflected the judge’s ruling were consistent with the provisions in the
Final Decree of Divorce. Both required the NH to pay the spouse $1,000, and both entitled
spouse to one-half of the NH’s retirement benefits unless the NH paid the spouse $38,000. Further,
both the handwritten notes and the signed decree provided that each party would keep
the items they had in their possessions and would pay any debts that existed in their
name. Although the Final Decree of Divorce provided additional details regarding
property settlement that were not included in the handwritten notes, those additional
details do not change the final nature of the December 10, 2010 judgment; rather,
they are modifications within the plenary power of the court. See Stallworth v. Stallworth, 201 S.W.3d 338, 349 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet.) (difference between trial court’s
oral judgment from bench and final divorce decree was a modification “well within
the plenary power of the trial court”). Here, the notations on the docket sheet indicate
that divorce had been granted and specify the details of property division and therefore
support finding that the judge rendered a final judgment of divorce on December 10,
2012. See Austin v. Austin, 553 S.W.2d 9, 10 (Tex. App. —Eastland 1977, writ dismissed) (docket entry stating
that divorce had been granted and oral decision on division of property both supported
finding that the trial court had rendered a final judgment of divorce on the date
of the docket entry).
Moreover, the Final Decree of Divorce also supports finding that the judge evinced
a present intent to render judgment on December 10, 2012. The judge’s signed Final
Decree of Divorce explicitly noted that he had judicially pronounced and rendered
the divorce on December 10, 2012. A Final Decree of Divorce can be evidence regarding
the contents of a previously rendered judgment. See R~, 324 S.W.3d at 856. Because the Final Decree of Divorce evidences the judge’s granting
of divorce on December 10, 2012, it is evidence that the effective date of the divorce
is December 10, 2012.
The docket report and letters from the NH’s attorney further support the conclusion
that the divorce was final on December 10, 2012. The NH’s attorney sent a letter on
June 11, 2013, confirming that an entry of judgment hearing was scheduled for July
11, 2013. The entry of judgment is a “purely ministerial act,” and is distinguishable
from the rendition of judgment. See Keim v. Anderson, 943 S.W.2d 938, 942 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1997, no writ). Therefore, the scheduled
entry of judgment hearing must have related to a previously rendered judgment. Here,
the only evidence of a judgment prior to June 11, 2013, is related to the December
10, 2012 hearing. Subsequently, on June 24, 2013, the NH filed a motion for a new
trial. Filing a motion for a new trial indicates a belief that a final judgment has
been rendered. Little ex. Rel. Thompson v. Thompson, No. 12-01-283-CV, 2002 WL 1017847, *3 (Tex. App.—Tyler May 14, 2002, pet. denied)
(unpublished). Thus, the NH’s choice to file a motion for a new trial supports a conclusion
that the judge had rendered a judgment earlier, here, December 10, 2012.
In summary, based on the specific circumstances presented, we believe that under Texas
law the trial court rendered a final judgment of divorce on December 10, 2012. All
the evidence, the Final Decree of Divorce, the trial court’s notations on the docket
sheet, and the litigation history of the case, including the motion for new trial
and scheduled entry of judgment hearing, supports a finding that the judge rendered
a final judgment of divorce on December 10, 2012. Thus, December 10, 2012, should
be used to establish the stepchild’s benefit termination date.
Regional Chief Counsel
M. Hasan Aijaz
Assistant Regional Counsel