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Oliveira v. Oliveira, Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Unpublished Disposition No. 12-P-620, January 29, 2013

In Oliveira v. Oliveira, the parties were divorced in 2006 pursuant to a hand written separation agreement. The agreement provided, in part, that the "[w]ife shall receive 50% of the coverture value of the [h]usband’s military pension for the length of the marriage." The wife brought a declaratory judgment action to obtain a judicial interpretation of the meaning of the provision. The wife argued that the provision entitled her to the benefit of post divorce increases in the husband’s rank and pay grade, or, at a minimum, the ambiguity in the provision necessitated an evidentiary hearing to determine the parties’ intentions. The trial court found that the provision was clear and unambiguous, and declined to look outside the "four corners" of the agreement, concluding that the wife should receive one half the value of the pension based upon rank and time of service at the time of the divorce. The wife appealed.

Noting that the interpretation of a separation agreement is a matter of law, the Massachusetts Appeals Court conducted a review de novo. The Appeals Court further noted that if the words of a contract are plain and free from ambiguity it must be construed in accordance with their ordinary and usual sense. However, where the language is unclear the court may consider parol evidence as to the parties’ purpose and intent. The Appeals Court concluded that the language was ambiguous, particularly with regard to post divorce enhancements in the husband’s position. The Appeals Court further held that the parties’ intent was not readily ascertainable from the language of the provision. The Appeals Court vacated and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.