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You can search the entire site. or go to the recent opinions, or the chronological or subject indices. Hussein-Scott v. Scott (3/29/2013) sp-6768

Hussein-Scott v. Scott (3/29/2013) sp-6768

        Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the PACIFIC  REPORTER . 

        Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 

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CAMILLA HUSSEIN-SCOTT,                        ) 

                                              )       Supreme Court No. S-14561 

                       Appellant,             ) 

                                              )       Superior Court No. 3AN-09-06621 CI 

        v.                                    ) 

                                              )       O P I N I O N 

JERRY SCOTT,                                  ) 

                                              )       No. 6768 – March 29, 2013 

                       Appellee.              ) 


               Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska,  Third 

               Judicial District, Anchorage, William F. Morse, Judge. 

               Appearances:      Terry C. Aglietti, Aglietti, Offret & Woofter, 

               Anchorage, for Appellant.        Gregory S. Parvin, Wasilla, for 


               Before:    Fabe, Chief Justice, Carpeneti, Winfree, Stowers, 

               and Maassen, Justices. 

               FABE, Chief Justice. 


               Jerry Scott and Camilla Hussein-Scott dissolved their marriage and signed 

a marital settlement agreement requiring Jerry to pay alimony every month.   On the line 

of the agreement reserved for the alimony termination date, Jerry wrote “12/2/2020,” 

which is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, Myriam.   But on the next line, in 

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a   space   left  blank  for  “other   specifics,”   Jerry   wrote,   “To   be  paid   until  Yasmine 

Scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage.” Yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter, and 

her 18th birthday is August 1, 2015.  We are asked if Jerry’s alimony obligation ends on 

the earlier date or the later one.       Relying on the well-established rule that the more 

important   or   principal   clause   controls,   we   conclude   that   Jerry’s   support   obligation 

terminates on December 2, 2020, or upon Camilla’s remarriage if earlier. 


        A.      Facts 

                Jerry Scott and Camilla Hussein-Scott were married in Eugene, Oregon and 

had three children, Salome, Yasmine, and Myriam.  The couple separated after 13 years 

of marriage.  At the time, Camilla was living in Florida with the children, and Jerry was 

working in Alaska.  Four years later, Jerry filed a petition to dissolve the marriage, and 

Jerry    and   Camilla    signed   a  marital   settlement    agreement.      Jerry   handwrote      the 

agreement’s terms on a pre-printed form.  The agreement disposed of the marital assets 

and liabilities and set terms for child support, custody, and visitation, as well as spousal 

support. A Florida court adopted the agreement by reference and dissolved the marriage. 

                The current dispute arose because the spousal support provision of the 

settlement agreement is ambiguous. The pre-printed settlement agreement form required 

the parties to specify the amount, frequency, and duration of alimony payments.  The 

parties indicated that Jerry would pay Camilla $10,000 every month, continuing until 

“12/2/2020.”     This is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, Myriam.               The next 

line   of  the  form   asked   the  parties   to  “Explain   [the]   type  of  alimony    (temporary, 

permanent, rehabilitative, and/or lump sum) and any other specifics.”  Jerry circled the 

word “temporary,” and, in the space provided, wrote “To be paid until Yasmine Scott’s 

18th birthday or until remarriage.”         Yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter.          She will 

turn 18 on August 1, 2015, more than five years before the termination date specified on 

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the line above. As the superior court noted, “Obviously the parties intended to have both 

descriptions identify the same date.          Thus they either erred by using the wrong date 

(12/2/2020)   for   Yasmine’s   18th   birthday   or   they   erred   in   the   descriptive   phrase   by 

referring to Yasmine rather than Myriam.” 

        B.      Proceedings 

                Jerry and Camilla now both live in Alaska.            In 2009 they registered the 

Florida divorce decree and marital settlement agreement in Alaska for enforcement and 


                In 2011 Jerry filed a motion in the Alaska superior court to end his alimony 

payments, or, if that were not successful, to clarify his obligation under the settlement 

agreement.     The trial court denied Jerry’s motion to end payments, and Jerry does not 

appeal this ruling.     The court held an evidentiary hearing to resolve the above-noted 


                At the hearing, Jerry and Camilla gave conflicting   testimony about the 

intended     termination    date   of  alimony    payments.     Jerry   testified  that  the  alimony 

payments were meant to support Camilla while she home-schooled their oldest daughter, 

Salome.     Once   Salome   turned   18   and   finished   with   her   home-schooling,   the   other 

children were to attend public school.  Camilla was to receive support payments for four 

more years to give her a chance to complete college or start a business.   Four years after 

Salome turns 18 is the same year Yasmine turns 18, and, according to Jerry, they decided 

to use Yasmine’s 18th birthday as a convenient end date.                Jerry testified that the date 

12/2/2020 was a mistake; Jerry claims he got mixed up and accidently entered the date 

child support, not spousal support, would end—that is, Myriam’s 18th birthday.                   Jerry 

also testified that he and Camilla sat at the dinner table together and discussed the terms 

of the agreement equably. 

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                 Camilla testified that Jerry’s version of events was a story that Jerry “made 

up.”   She explained that the support payments were supposed to help her raise all three 

children     and   pay   the   mortgages   on   her   properties.    She   testified   that   the   support 

payments   were   supposed   to   end   when   Myriam,   their   youngest   daughter,   turned   18. 

Finally, she agreed that they discussed the agreement at the dinner table, and that she had 

an opportunity to review the terms, but she also claimed that Jerry made her discuss the 

agreement in front of their children and that Jerry threatened that if she did not sign the 

papers he would get a divorce “she wouldn’t like.”               Camilla alleged that she had been 

coerced into getting the divorce and signing the settlement agreement. 

                 The superior court found neither party credible.              Citing by analogy to a 

provision of the Uniform Commercial Code stating that, when in conflict, words prevail 

over numbers, the court found that “the more likely error would occur in the entry of the 

bald   numerical   date   rather   than   in   the   narrative   description   of   the   end   date.”  The 

superior      court   held    that   Jerry’s    obligation    to   pay    spousal     support    ends    on 

August 1, 2016.1      Camilla appeals. 


                 We   are   asked   to   review   the   superior   court’s   interpretation   of   a   marital 

settlement agreement.  This is a question of law, which we consider de novo.2                   But if we 

rely on extrinsic evidence, we will accept the factual findings of the superior court unless 

they are unsupported by substantial evidence.3 

        1        Both parties agree that, if the earlier date controls, the trial court erred by 

finding that the payments will end in 2016 instead of 2015, when Yasmine turns 18. 

        2       Zito v. Zito, 969 P.2d 1144, 1147 n.4 (Alaska 1998) (citing Wahl v. Wahl, 

945 P.2d 1229, 1231 n.2 (Alaska 1997)). 

        3       Id . (citing Wahl, 945 P.2d at 1232 n.3). 

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                Like every other state, Alaska has adopted the Uniform Interstate Family 

Support Act (UIFSA), which guides our choice-of-law determination in this case.  Under 

UIFSA, the duration of current obligations in a marital settlement agreement is governed 

by   the   law   of   the   issuing   state.4 In   this   case,   the   issuing   state   is   Florida. We   will 

therefore interpret the agreement according to Florida law. 


        A.	     General Contract Principles Apply To Determine The Meaning Of The 

                Settlement Agreement. 

                Under both Florida and Alaska law, an ambiguous settlement agreement is 

interpreted using basic contract principles.5         These principles include considering the 

contract as a whole, looking to the intent of the parties, avoiding absurd results, and 

constructing the contract such that the result is fair, customary, and such as a prudent 

person would naturally execute.6 

        B.	     The     Lower     Court     Did   Not    Err   In   Disregarding      The    Parties’ 


                Camilla argues that the alimony termination date is not ambiguous because 

the available evidence makes the intent of the parties obvious.             She claims that it was 

clear error to find her testimony not credible and urges us to draw our own conclusions 

        4       AS 25.25.604(a) (“The law of the issuing state governs the nature, extent, 

amount,   and   duration   of   current   payments   and   other   obligations   of   support   and   the 

payment of arrearages under the order.”). 

        5       See, e.g., Underwood v. Underwood, 64 So. 2d 281, 287 (Fla. 1953) (citing 

Bergman       v.  Bergman ,    199   So.  920,   921   (Fla.  1940))    (“That   these   [settlement] 

agreements should be construed and interpreted as other contracts is no longer open to 

question.”); Cook v. Cook, 249 P.3d 1070, 1077 (Alaska 2011). 

        6       Florida Power Corp. v. City of Tallahassee , 18 So. 2d 671, 674 (Fla. 1944). 

                                                  -5-	                                          6768

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from   the   hearing.    She   also   contends   that   the   superior   court   erred   by   ruling   with 

insufficient factual findings. 

                But we have held as a matter of law that self-serving testimony at the time 

of litigation about the parties’ past intentions is not particularly probative.7          And even to 

the extent that type of testimony is probative, assessment of witness credibility is the 

exclusive province of the fact-finder, and we will not revisit that assessment on appeal.8 

We have also held that where credible evidence of intent is unavailable, the court may 

still interpret an ambiguous settlement agreement as a matter of law.9                  We therefore 

conclude that the superior court did not err by declining to place weight on the testimony 

of either party. 

        C.	     General   Contract   Principles   Suggest   That   The   Term             “12/2/2020” 

                Prevails Over The Phrase “Yasmine Scott’s 18th Birthday.” 

                The preferred method of interpreting contracts is to reconcile conflicting 

terms in a way that gives effect to them all.10	         That is not possible here.11      When two 

terms cannot be reconciled, there are several tools of contract interpretation that may 

determine which term prevails. 

        7       Abood v. Abood , 119 P.3d 980, 986 (Alaska 2005); Peterson v. Wirum , 625 

P.2d 866, 869-70 (Alaska 1981). 

        8	      Anthony v. State , 521 P.2d 486, 492 (Alaska 1974). 

        9       See Hartley v. Hartley, 205 P.3d 342, 350 (Alaska 2009); Keffer v. Keffer , 

852 P.2d 394, 397-98 (Alaska 1993). 

        10      See Florida Power Corp., 18 So. 2d at 674; McBain v. Pratt , 514 P.2d 823, 

828 (Alaska 1973). 

        11      It may be possible to harmonize the terms in the agreement by reading it 

such that Camilla would be guaranteed payments until Yasmine’s 18th birthday, and then 

afterward until 12/2/2020 or remarriage, whichever is sooner.                 But neither party has 

indicated that this was their intent when drafting the agreement. 

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                One simple rule is to enforce the earlier term.12         Another is to construe the 

contract against its   drafter, in   this   case   Jerry.13  While   these   tools   are   disfavored   in 

Alaska in interpreting marriage settlement agreements,14 they are available under Florida 

law.15  And both suggest that the earlier term “12/2/2020” prevails over the later phrase 

“Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday.” 

                A tool of interpretation that can be found in both Alaska and Florida law 

is that the more important or more specific term prevails: 

                The     better    and   apparent     majority     rule   for   resolving 

                irreconcilable      differences    between    contract    clauses   is  to 


CONTRACTS § 32:15 (4th ed. 2012)   (“Historically, one of the first answers provided by 

the courts for how to deal with conflicting clauses was to enforce the earlier clause and 

disregard the later.    This approach is still followed today.”). 

        13      RESTATEMENT        (SECOND)   OF     CONTRACTS       §   206   (1981)   (“In   choosing 

among   the   reasonable   meanings   of   a   promise   or   agreement   or   a   term   thereof,   that 

meaning is generally preferred which operates against the party who supplies the words 

or from whom a writing otherwise proceeds.”). 

        14      We have refused to construe a marriage settlement agreement against the 

drafting party, see Zito v. Zito , 969 P.2d 1144, 1147 (Alaska 1998) (citing Little Susitna 

Constr. Co. v. Soil Processing, Inc., 944 P.2d 20, 25 n.7 (Alaska 1997)), and we have 

never before favored one term   over another simply because it appears earlier in the 

contract.   Williston looks on this latter method with disfavor:  “Because of the arbitrary 

and artificial quality of this rule of interpretation, it is not universally followed and will 

only be accepted as a rule of last resort.”  11WILLISTON & LORD , supra note 12. 

        15      See Copacabana Records, Inc. v. WEA Latina, Inc ., 791 So. 2d 1179, 1180 

(Fla. Dist. App. 2001) (citations omitted) (applying the rule that an earlier clause prevails 

over a later one); McIlmoil v. McIlmoil, 784 So. 2d 557, 562 (Fla. Dist. App. 2001) 

(citing  City of Homestead v. Johnson, 760 So. 2d 80, 84   (Fla. 2000)) (construing a 

marriage settlement agreement against its drafter). 

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                 enforce the clause relatively more important or principal to 

                 the contract.    This rule is tempered by the corollary that the 

                 more specific clause controls the more general.[16] 

                 Here, the settlement agreement form contained a line specifically reserved 

for the date on which alimony payments would cease, and a second space left blank for 

the inclusion of “any other specifics.”          Jerry entered the term “12/2/2020” on the line 

reserved for the alimony termination date, and entered the written phrase “[t]o be paid 

until Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage” in the second blank space for 

“any other specifics.”   Because the second space was not designated for the termination 

date, the words written in that space are entitled to less weight when trying to determine 

when   payments   will   end.      The   line   specifically   designated   for   the   termination   date 

contains the more important information on that topic. 

                 Moreover, the phrase “[t]o be paid until Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday” is 

not the only term that appears in the space designated for “any other specifics,” further 

reducing its importance.  The phrase “[t]o be paid until Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday” 

is coupled with the language “or until remarriage,” creating a limiting condition that 

alimony      payments   will   end    upon    Camilla’s   remarriage.       Unlike    the   date  that   the 

payments will end, this condition seems to be exactly the type of “other specific” that 

could not be expressed on the line reserved for the termination date. 

                Nor     is  the  term   “Yasmine      Scott’s   18th   birthday”    more    specific   than 

12/2/2020, entitling it to priority.        Jerry contends that specific language means more 

        16       11WILLISTON & LORD , supra note 12 (citations omitted); see also Kochan 

v. Am. Fire & Cas. Co. , 200 So. 2d 213, 219 (Fla. Dist. App. 1967) (citations omitted) 

(“[I]t is well settled law that minor provisions of contracts should be interpreted so as not 

to   conflict   with   the   main   purpose.   Indeed,   minor   provisions   should   be   sacrificed   if 

irreconcilable with the general intent.”); Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co. , 84 P.3d 

996, 1004 (Alaska 2004) (“[I]f there is a conflict, the specific section will control over 

the general.”). 

                                                    -8-                                              6768

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detailed language and argues that the narrative description contains more information 

than does the mere identification of a date.  But the date 12/2/2020 is unequivocal and, 

unlike “Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday,” requires no application of outside information. 

It is therefore at least as specific as the reference to Yasmine’s 18th birthday. 

        D.	     It Was Error To Interpret The Settlement Agreement According To 

                The Uniform Commercial Code. 

                The   superior   court   applied,   by   analogy,   a   provision   from   the   Uniform 

Commercial Code that has been adopted in both Florida and Alaska: 

                If   an   instrument   contains   contradictory   terms,   typewritten 

                terms prevail over printed terms, handwritten terms prevail 

                over both, and words prevail over numbers.[17] 

Following the rule, the superior court gave preference to the words “Yasmine Scott’s 

18th birthday” over the numbers “12/2/2020.”  Jerry asks us to affirm this interpretation. 

                Both the superior court and Jerry recognize that the UCC is not controlling 

here because that provision only applies to negotiable instruments.18              But both Florida 

and Alaska courts have applied the UCC by analogy to non-UCC situations.19                   Even so, 

that analogy is only persuasive where the contract in question is similar to a commercial 

        17	     FLA . STAT . § 673.1141 (2013); AS 45.03.114. 

        18	     FLA . STAT . § 673.1041 (2013); AS 45.03.104. 

        19      See, e.g., W.E. Johnson Equip. Co. v. United Airlines, Inc., 238 So. 2d 98, 

100 (Fla. 1970) (finding an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose in lease 

contracts    after  noting    that  the  UCC    implies   such   a  warranty    in  sales  contracts); 

Cousineau v. Walker, 613 P.2d 608, 615-16 (Alaska 1980) (noting the UCC’s rejection 

of “caveat emptor” in the sale of goods, and applying it to a real property transaction). 

                                                  -9-	                                           6768

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one.20   At least one Florida court has refused to rely on the analogy where there is no 

such similarity.21 

                 The words and numbers in negotiable instruments are not like the words 

and numbers in the contested alimony provision.               In a negotiable instrument, such as a 

check, the drafter uses both words and numerals to represent the same number.                      In that 

context, it makes sense to believe that it is easier to make a mistake by transposing two 

digits or misplacing a period when dealing with numerals than when writing the amount 

out   longhand.     But   we   see   no   reason   to   believe   that   Jerry   was   more   likely   to   write 

“12/2/2020” when he meant “8/1/2015” than he was to write “Yasmine” when he meant 

“Myriam.”      The mental error in either case — thinking of the wrong daughter — is the 


                 Jerry    is  also   incorrect    that   “[t]he   superior     court   made     a factual 

determination   that   it   would   be   ‘less   likely   to   select   the   wrong   child’s   name   when 

identifying the particular birthday as the end point’ than to erroneously select the actual 

date.”  (Emphasis added.)   This determination was not rooted in the specific facts of this 

case. This was a ruling of law reconciling conflicting contract terms, based on a possibly 

erroneous observation about human nature in general.                  It is not entitled to deference as 

a factual finding. 

        20        The cases in the footnote above made this similarity explicit.                See W.E. 

Johnson Equip. Co. , 238 So. 2d at 100 (“The reasons for imposing   the warranty of 

fitness in sales cases are often present in lease transactions.”); Cousineau, 613 P.2d at 

616 (“Other than tradition, no reason exists for treating land sales differently from the 

sale   of   commercial   goods   insofar   as   application   of   the   doctrine   of   caveat   emptor   is 


        21       See, e.g., Favors v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. , 309 So. 2d 69, 72 (Fla. 

Dist. App. 1975) (“The bailment involved in the case subjudice was not similar to a sale 

and we see no reason to extend Uniform Commercial Code warranties to this type of 


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               Because     the  term   “12/2/2020”    is  more   important    than   the  later, 

contradictory term, we conclude that Jerry Scott’s spousal support obligations terminate 

on the earlier of December 2, 2020 or Camilla’s remarriage.  The superior court’s order 

is REVERSED and the case is REMANDED for correction of the termination date of 

spousal support. 

                                             -11-                                        6768

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