This case doesn’t really make any changes to the law in Tennessee, but I decided to post about it because it illustrates an important point about irreconcilable differences divorces. The short version is this: A marital dissolution agreement is a contract and once both parties have signed, it is really difficult to get out of the agreement they made. The case is Polster v. Polster, July 8, 2021, No. M2020-01150-COA-R3-CV.
The irreconcilable differences divorce
The parties were married in 1992, and separated in early 2020. Wife was represented by a lawyer, but Husband negotiated the settlement on his own. The marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”) stated that Husband was given the opportunity to consult with a lawyer of his own choosing.
The parties went through several versions of the MDA and finally settled on one that divided their marital home, assets, debts, and retirement accounts. The MDA included that Husband would pay Wife $500.00 per month in alimony for 60 months. Both parties signed the MDA and it was filed with the court on May 4th. On May 7th a notice that the final hearing was set on June 24th was sent to Husband as his home.
One important thing to note about his case is at the time this was all happening, the courts in Tennessee were all (mostly) closed to in-person hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The court in which this divorce occurred was operating under a plan that stated all motions and bench trials would be “decided on pleadings or WebEx/Zoom unless all attorneys and Judge agree to an in-person hearing that will be specially scheduled by the Judge’s assistant”. Furthermore the plan said that “Uncontested divorces (attorney represented and self-represented litigants) will be decided on the pleadings.” The courts I practice in have all tried pretty hard to make everybody aware that there were few (if any) in-person hearings during this time.
The husband tries to stop the divorce
It’s not clear in the record on what time of day the Court reviewed and granted the divorce, but on June 24th Husband showed up at the courthouse and was denied entry. It’s not that they were picking on him, it was just that the court was not having hearings in person. Nobody was allowed in. Regardless, in the early afternoon, Husband filed a pleading with the clerk that said this:
Lee Ann Polster means everything to me. If a divorce is the only thing I can do to make her happy, an uncontested divorce is what she will get. . . . All I am asking for is 3 months of court-ordered marital counseling . . . . I just would like every possibility to save my marriage if possible. I am willing to pay for the counseling, and I will even pay all her attorney and court fees. If she agrees after the 3 months to continue working this out, her attorney can keep papers on file for an immediate divorce in case she decides to follow through with the divorce of which I will pay for.
You can sign off on the dispersion of our marital property, I don’t care about that. At this point I feel she feels compelled to follow through with the divorce because she has gone this far. All I care about is saving my marriage to my God given soul mate[.] I beg you to please grant my request.
Late in the afternoon, the clerk recorded the final decree, including the MDA, that the judge had approved and entered at some point during the day. The record doesn’t show whether or not the judge was even aware that Husband filed the pleading above. Husband then hired an attorney who filed a request with the court to set aside the divorce on the following grounds:
- Husband said he was not represented by counsel throughout the proceedings, and
- Husband was depressed and under duress at the time the MDA was presented to him, and
- Wife “fraudulently and intentionally misrepresented her intentions of the Marital Dissolution Agreement”, and
- That the MDA was “utterly inequitable and should be set aside in its entirety.”
The court denied Husband’s motion, and Husband appealed.
Can you get out of a marital dissolution agreement?
Sometimes. Not often. An MDA is a contract, and like all contracts it’s meant to be a final and binding agreement between the parties. Once you sign it, it’s pretty much a done deal. However, there are entire books written about how to break a contract or how a contract might be void. Husband does raise some valid reasons why he could be allowed out of the MDA, so let’s look at how the Court of Appeals reviewed his claims.
The burden of proof is always on the person trying to avoid the contract though. This isn’t a case where somebody can just go tell a judge they were incompetent, or under duress, or there was fraud involved. You have to be able to prove it. That can be difficult.
Emotional state of a party to a contract
It is possible to set aside a contract or MDA if a party can prove that they were in such a poor emotional state that they were not able to comprehend what they were doing. The analysis set forth by the Appellate Court is this:
(P)ersons will be excused from their contractual obligations on the ground of incompetency only when (1) they are unable to understand in a reasonable manner the nature and consequences of the transaction or (2) when they are unable to act in a reasonable manner in relation to the transaction, and the other party has reason to know of their condition.
The court found that Husband did not claim any facts that would satisfy either part of this test. He never claimed any reason why he would not have been able to understand what was going on, or that Wife would have any reason to know he was unable to understand it. Therefore, he’s not able to use this theory to get out of the contract.
Duress of a party to an MDA
A party to a contract may be able to avoid their obligation if they can prove they were under undue influence or duress when they signed the agreement. The classic example is that of somebody holding a gun to your head and screaming “Sign it. Sign it. SIGN IT!!” That’s signing under duress, but in the real world that scenario probably doesn’t happen all that often. There are other ways people apply pressure to get people to sign contracts though. Each case has to be analyzed on it’s unique facts, and the Tennessee Supreme Court says duress is:
“[A] condition of mind produced by the improper external pressure or influence that practically destroys the free agency of a party, and causes him to do and act or make a contract not of his own volition, but under such wrongful external pressure.” When such pressure exists “is a question to be determined by the age, sex, intelligence, experience and force of will of the party, the nature of the act, and all the attendant facts and circumstances.”
Another way of saying it is: “Duress consists of ‘unlawful restraint, intimidation, or compulsion that is so severe that it overcomes the mind or will of ordinary persons.’”
Husband claimed Wife told him that if he signed the MDA, the couple could work things out and continue to be married. He claimed she texted pictures of herself to him and talked to him in a way that caused him to believe the parties might get back together. Even if that’s all true, does that prove that the Wife overcame Husband’s will and forced him to sign an agreement he didn’t want to?
The Husband is a grown man and works [a] professional job. The Husband is not handicapped or otherwise incapable of reading and comprehending what he is reading, nor is the Husband unable to understand that he initialed every page of the MDA acknowledging that he knew what he was signing. Finally, the Husband had ample opportunity to hire counsel and chose not to of his own volition.
Ultimately, the court found that Husband had negotiated the terms of the MDA and hadn’t proven anything that would lead the court to believe that Wife did anything to force him into an agreement against his free will.
What you need to know
There’s more to this case, but this blog post is already too long. What you should take away from this case is if you are getting divorced and you have any assets, debts, children, retirement, alimony considerations, etc, you need a lawyer. An experienced lawyer can advise you on your options, the best way to word agreements, and definitely help you avoid outcomes in your divorce that may haunt you for years to come. The appeals court opinion in this case doesn’t have a lot of detail about what the agreement said, but chances are if the Husband had some good advice, he could have avoided an MDA he was so unhappy with.
Call me. I can help you get divorced with a settlement that works for you. (615) 244-1018 x 102.