This case shows why it’s important to have someone help you negotiate your marital dissolution agreement, or at the very least make sure you’ve read it and understand the terms before the divorce is final.
In October 2010, a husband informed his wife that he would like to get a divorce. The wife downloaded some divorce forms she found on the internet, and the couple filled in the terms to divide their property by checking boxes and hand writing information where needed. The wife later testified that she did most of the writing in the marital dissolution agreement (or “MDA”) because the husband had a problem with shaking of his hands.
According to the agreement, each party would keep their retirement accounts, the only joint account was divided equally, and there was no marital debt. The only piece of real estate the couple owned was the martial house. The agreement stated that the house “shall be vested solely in the wife, and the other spouse will thereby be divested of all right, title, and interest in it.” The MDA further states that “the parties have divided the personal property they own individually or jointly. The husband is satisfied that a fair division has been made of it.” Neither party hired a lawyer. The husband signed the agreement in front of a notary.
The parties also prepared a “final judgment”, which the judge executed in January of 2011. The husband did not appear in court, but he had signed the final judgement, which contained the following language:
The Court finds that the parties have made adequate and sufficient provision in a Marital Dissolution Agreement for the equitable division of all property and debts between them. It is attached and incorporated as part of this Decree.
Husband wants to modify the MDA
About 6 months after the divorce was final, the husband hired an attorney to try to undo the divorce because he wasn’t happy with the terms. He filed a rule 60.02 motion with the trial court claiming that the marital dissolution agreement was “a product of fraud, duress, and misrepresentation and other misconduct on behalf of [Wife],” and that it does “not provide for a fair and equitable division of the parties’ assets and debts as is required by Tennessee law.” Husband argued that he court should set the divorce aside so the agreement could be modified.
The husband’s argument was based on two assertions. First, he told the court that he and the wife had verbally agreed that all of their property would be split equally between the two parties. When the wife wrote their MDA, she didn’t follow the agreement and gave herself the entire interest in the house. This, he said, was fraud and a misrepresentation on behalf of the wife. However, he admitted that he signed the agreement while the wife wasn’t even present and without ever reading it.
Second, he insisted that when granting a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, the trial court has a duty to ensure that the terms of the marital dissolution agreement are fair and equitable to both parties. He argued that the court failed in that duty because the property division was not equal.
The trial court declined to set the divorce aside because the Court felt the Husband had failed to prove that the agreement was a result of fraud, duress, or misrepresentation. The court also found that although the distribution of property was not equal between the parties, the MDA met the statutory requirements and “the parties are free to contract with one another relating to their distribution and division of their assets, debts, and financial resources.”
The Appellate Court doesn’t feel sorry for him
Generally speaking, a final judgment is supposed to be final. (That’s where the name comes from) However, we do live in the real world and sometimes judgments are issued that are incorrect or facts come to light that make a judgment ineffective. The rules of procedure accommodate this reality, but only in very narrow circumstances. The rule is Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02. That rule states as follows:
On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party . . . from a final judgment, order or proceeding for the following reasons: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect; (2) fraud (whether heretofore denominated intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party; (3) the judgment is void; (4) the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that a judgment should have prospective application; or (5) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.
Because final judgments are intended to be final, winning relief in a rule 60.02 motion is not easy.
A party seeking relief under Rule 60.02 must substantiate the request with clear and convincing evidence. McCracken v. Brentwood United Methodist Church, 958 S.W.2d 792, 795 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997). “Clear and convincing evidence means evidence in which there is no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence.” Hodges v. S.C. Toof & Co., 833 S.W.2d 896, 901 n. 3 (Tenn. 1992). “In other words, the evidence must be such that the truth of the facts asserted [is] ‘highly probable.’ ” Goff v. Elmo Greer & Sons Constr. Co., 297 S.W.3d 175, 187 (Tenn. 2009) (quoting Teter v. Republic Parking Sys., Inc., 181 S.W.3d 330, 341 (Tenn. 2005)). In general, “the bar for attaining relief is set very high and the burden borne by the movant is heavy.” Johnson v. Johnson, 37 S.W.3d 892, 895 n .2 (Tenn. 2001).
With this in mind, the Court reviewed the testimony of the parties. The husband testified that he did not read the agreement because he assumed the wife had followed the verbal agreement. Furthermore he testified that he drove himself to a bank and signed the documents in front of a notary without ever reading anything other than the last page.
The wife testified that she used some divorce forms that she had downloaded off the internet. She checked the appropriate boxes and filled in details by hand where necessary. She did all the writing on the documents because the husband had a tremor in his hands and his writing was difficult to read. She testified that she read every line of the marital dissolution agreement to the husband before they signed it.
The Court recited one of the most fundamental rules of contract law:
One who signs a contract cannot later plead ignorance of its contents if there was an opportunity to read it before signing. See Solomon v. First American Nat’l Bank, 774 S.W.2d 935, 943 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989). The law will not allow a party to enter a contract and then seek to avoid performance because he did not read the agreement or know its contents. Giles v. Allstate Ins. Co., 871 S.W.2d 154, 157 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993) (citing Beasley v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 190 Tenn. 227, 229 S.W.2d 146 (Tenn. 1950)). Otherwise, written contracts would be worthless. Id. In general, the law holds parties responsible for what they sign. See id. But see Teague Bros. v. Martin & Bayley, Inc., 750 S.W.2d 152, 158 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1987) (excluding from this general rule situations in which the neglect to read was induced through artifice or trick by the party seeking to enforce the contract).
What about the fact that the property division was not equal? Husband still argued that the trial court was required to make sure the distribution of assets was equitable before approving the divorce. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4- 103(b) does say this:
No divorce shall be granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences unless the court affirmatively finds in its decree that the parties have made adequate and sufficient provision by written agreement for the custody and maintenance of any children of that marriage and for the equitable settlement of any property rights between the parties. If the court does not affirmatively find that the agreement is sufficient or equitable, the cause shall be continued by the court to allow further disposition by the petitioner.
However, when it comes to matters of dividing up marital assets and debts and determining alimony, the courts regularly give the parties wide discretion to settle these matters on their own. The husband had signed an agreement that included the term “the parties have divided the personal property they own individually or jointly. The husband is satisfied that a fair division has been made of it.” By signing this, the husband had told the court and the world that he was satisfied with the distribution of the property. Without some indication of a gross injustice, why would the trial court interfere?
The lesson in this case is clear: Read the agreement before you sign it. If it’s not right, don’t sign it! Of course, I’m going to recommend that you have some sort of assistance from an attorney during your divorce. This isn’t part of the case, but my suspicion is that this guy was feeling sad and guilty about the end of his marriage and those feelings caused him to sign an agreement that was harmful to him. It happens a lot.
Therefore, my suggestion to anyone is to get some sort of advice from a lawyer when you’re getting divorced. Even if you don’t think you have a lot of property, you will likely benefit from the advice of somebody who has no emotional investment in your marriage. Even if you don’t want full representation, pay an attorney for a few hours of their time to review your documents and advise you of your rights. Contact me to find out how I can help you with your situation.
Want to read the case for yourself? Pierre v. Pierre (link removed)