Marital Dissolution Agreements: Where Words Still Matter

During the divorce process it is common for parties to draft a Marital Dissolution Agreement, or MDA.  The MDA is a contract between the parties dividing the assets and debts of the marriage and spelling out any necessary provisions for child support, alimony, or visitation (depending on the circumstances of the case).  The MDA is usually attached to the Final Decree of Divorce and “incorporated by reference” or made a part of the judge’s Order by mentioning it in the text of the Decree.  When an MDA is negotiated, it is important to remember that in this arena, words still matter and the court will treat the party language as being their intent when negotiating and signing the document.

Courts in Tennessee treat marital dissolution agreements as contracts and apply a “four corners” rule when looking at the document for enforceability.  If the language of the MDA is plain and unambiguous it will have more potency and enforceability in court than a document with ambiguous terms and lofty language.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to be as detailed as possible when constructing an MDA.  Courts will also look at the following issues when determining whether an MDA is enforceable:

1. Was the MDA executed in contemplation of a divorce?

2. Was the MDA negotiated and signed under duress, undue influence, or with party overreach?

3. Did the parties know of all the assets up for distribution on negotiation and signing?

If the answers read “yes,” “no,” and “yes,” the Court will most likely treat the MDA as valid and enforceable.  Recent case law in Tennessee backs these points up, so make sure you know what you’re signing.  Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

In Myrick v. Myrick, Husband and Wife executed an MDA stating the wife would receive alimony until death, remarriage, or a “third person not the wife’s child moves into the residence.”  The MDA was executed and incorporated into the Final Decree.  Shortly after the divorce Wife’s mother moved into the home.  Husband sought to have the alimony negated, and the Court of Appeals eventually held Husband was no longer required to pay as the “third person” language was plain, unambiguous, and covered the Wife’s mother as a “third person not the wife’s child.”  That same “third person” language will apply to situations where a child moves back home with a parent, or spends summers with a parent in college, according to Hickman v. Hickman–even though it’s not the textbook definition of “cohabitation,” the Court of Appeals held “third person” language was plain and unambiguous to the extent it covered this all too common scenario.

What if a party decides to move in with their significant other after a divorce?  Does that mean the parties are “cohabitating” and language ceasing spousal support should take hold?  Not necessarily, said the Court of Appeals in Mabee v. Mabee.  Here the mere existence of the wife’s new lover in the home did not meet the definition of “cohabitation,” as the word included an assumption of duties “usually manifested by married couples or life partners.”  Therefore, intimacy or spending the night with a person does not constitute “cohabitation” and spousal support will continue.

Words even matter when it comes to the parenting plan required in divorces with children.  Gentry v. Gentry saw Husband and Wife go back to court over a modification of a “temporary” parenting plan filed with the Final Decree of Divorce.  The Court of Appeals held the “temporary” plan exactly that, and with the law requiring a “permanent parenting plan” filed with the Final Decree of Divorce the old Plan was subject to modification.

What happens if you make a mistake, or something you want covered is not included in the MDA?  It’s very possible the Court will hold you to the provisions of what you’ve signed, regardless of what you “really wanted.”  In Worgan v. Worgan Wife filed a Rule 60 motion to have an MDA set aside because it did not cover a pension of Husband’s she felt should be divided.  The Court of Appeals upheld the MDA as executed, stating the MDA was a contract in contemplation of a divorce, the Wife was under no duress, undue influence, or overreach, and she should have realized this contract would conclude all marital rights and obligations and negotiated as such.  Not even clever lawyering can save a party who executes an MDA in the proper fashion, as show in Hawkins v. Le-Hawkins.  Here the Wife filed for legal separation and the couple properly executed the MDA.  The final agreement was incorporated in a divorce, and did not include two pensions Wife wanted in the decree, so she moved to have the MDA set aside as the “divorce decree” didn’t give her the relief she sought–legal separation.  The court set aside the Final Decree and MDA on that ground, but six days later Husband filed for divorce and included the original MDA as part of the paperwork.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the original MDA, stating it met all the requirements of a properly executed MDA and the Wife had a full and fair accounting of all the marital assets before she signed it.

Words still matter in some areas, and the MDA is a big one for couples going through divorce. Even if couples think they’ve covered everything in an agreement they write together without the help of an attorney or mediator, it’s probably a good idea to seek a fresh set of eyes before signing on the dotted line.  Odds are there’s something in the agreement not covered that needs to be addressed, so take the time to seek counsel or someone to review an MDA before putting it with final divorce documents.  You’ll be glad you did, and it will probably save you money in extra litigation fees later.

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