The Adversarial Nature of Litigation
and the Finality Judgments

Before the remainder of this "First Thoughts" chapter can be appreciated, it is important to understand that, in Oklahoma, a divorce case is an "adversarial" proceeding. The case style (name) is Jane Doe versus John Doe. The case begins with a "petition" filed by a "plaintiff" against a "defendant" and, unless the case is dismissed, it ends with a "judgment" (typically called a "Decree of Divorce"). An equally important consideration is that the judgment is final and matters/issues resolved cannot ordinarily be relitigated later.

Chapman v. Chapman, 1984 OK 89, 692 P.2d 1369, illustrates the importance of these dual concepts in a divorce context. There, the ex-wife alleged that her former husband had concealed assets associated with a divorce trial fifteen years earlier. To read the Court's full opinion, go to the Oklahoma Supreme Court's Web site and type 692 P.2d 1369 in the box at the top. In ¶11 of its opinion, the Supreme Court's opinion gave this description of the proceeding:

The record before us is clear that throughout the divorce proceedings the wife had been assisted by her own counsel. Her failure to discover all the spousal assets is nowhere ascribed to the husband's extrinsic fraud. Rather, it is sought to be attributed to her own inaction in reliance on a preexisting fiduciary relationship with him. Pleading a fiduciary status that subsisted between married parties before the divorce will not relieve the wife of her duty to spell out the specific acts on which extrinsic fraud is to be rested. Parties locked in forensic combat, with each represented by separate counsel, are regarded in law as standing in an adversarial posture. Viewing the wife's pleading in a light most favorable to her, as we are bound to do, we are constrained to conclude that the husband's alleged concealment of spousal assets does not rise above intrinsic fraud - one perpetrated within the course of adversary proceedings. The character of his alleged conduct may not be distinguished from either perjured testimony or any other act of fraud committed by a suitor in the course of a forensic contest. Since his fraud, if any, was of an intrinsic nature, § 1038 time limit operated to bar the wife's equity suit after the lapse of two years from the rendition of the divorce decree. Inasmuch as the wife failed to allege any acts of extrinsic fraud, her claim for vacation was correctly held to have been barred.

So, once again, (1) litigants are in an "adversarial" posture when it comes to knowing procedural rules, statutes, and case law that may be applicable to their circumstance, whether they are represented by lawyers, and/or whether they elect to utilize "alternative dispute resolution" (e.g., mediation) or traditional litigation procedures to reach a conclusion of the case; and (2) in most cases, when the conclusion (the final decree) is done, the case is done. You don't get "overs". And, even if alleged fraud is involved and a party tries to undo some or all parts of a judgment, the rules can get pretty complicated.

A primary reason for the existence of the legal system is to resolve disputes by the entry of a "judgment" which puts an end to legal controversies between parties to the dispute. When a judgment is entered, the issues are adjudicated and the dispute is resolved.  Sometimes, this principle is called res judicata. While courts do exist to resolve such disputes, they don't exist to resolve the same dispute again and again. If one party attempts to have a court decide what has previously been decided in an earlier case, the other party will say, "res judicata". In street speech, that means, "been there, done that". The principle applies to those issues which were decided and it also applies to other issues which could have been raised during the litigation but were not.

For example, 43 O.S. §122, reads,

A divorce granted at the instance of one party shall operate as a dissolution of the marriage contract as to both, and shall be a bar to any claim of either party in or to the property of the other, except in cases where actual fraud shall have been committed by or on behalf of the successful party.

This statute has been interpreted by the Oklahoma Supreme Court as barring post-decree claims by an ex-spouse to property which was not brought to light during the course of pretrial and trial proceedings. For example, see DeWeese v. Fisher, 1983 OK 12, 658 P.2d 1153:

Unless there was a valid post-divorce agreement, property acquired during coverture omitted from the court's division of property in the decree is owned by the party in whose name title rested prior to the divorce.

So, except where an appeal is timely filed from the divorce decree and excepting issues which are legally capable of post-decree modification (such as modification of support alimony and/or child custody, visitation and support based on changed circumstances), when the divorce decree is signed by the judge, the case is done and the terms of that decree/judgment are of lasting effect. It's best for you that it be done "right" when you have the chance.