Marital Dissolution Agreements Change From Contracts to Court Orders Upon Finalization of Divorce in Tennessee
The case of Beck v. Beck, No. W2011-01806-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Ct. App. May 11, 2012) outlines for Tennessee family law attorneys exactly why parties must return to court before modifying or even enforcing their divorce decrees and judgments.
The parties had entered into a Marital Dissolution Agreement "MDA" that required them to exchange tax returns each year. If they failed to do so, the MDA provided that the alimony obligation would be suspended until adequate documents were provided. When Wife provided tax returns with redacted info, Husband unilaterally suspended his alimony payments without first returning to court.
Holding: Because the MDA, a contract, was incorporated into the parties' Final Decree (a court order), the Husband did not have the authority to suspend his payments and should have gotten court approval before doing so.
Although Husband filed a Motion to Clarify, and obtained a court order stating that redacted tax returns were not appropriate, no court order was issued allowing suspension of payments. Wife filed a Motion to Set Aside this order under Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 60.02 alleging she had not been properly served and did not attend that hearing. The trial court found she had not been properly served and that Husband did not attempt to have a second summons issued nor send a copy via certified mail. He simply sent notice to her last-known address via regular mail, which was not sufficient in this case.
Although MDAs are viewed as contracts when a court must interpret the terms, they lose their contractual nature when incorporated into a court order. The decision as to whether the suspension of payments was appropriate fell to the trial court. Therefore, the Husband was charged with an arrearage of alimony payments throughout this time frame. Even had the trial court found Wife in contempt for not providing the correct documents, that does not allow suspension to follow without court authority.