Court Declines to Set Aside Marital Dissolution Agreement and Tennessee Parenting Plan: Owen v. Haas

Husband and Wife married in 1996 and had three children together. While Husband was deployed overseas, Wife had an affair. When Husband returned home, Wife informed him that she wanted a divorce, hired an attorney, and filed for divorce on March 11, 2011.

Husband did not have evidence of an affair, but he hired a private investigator. He did not disclose the fact that he knew about Wife’s infidelity until the parties’ mediation in November 2011. At that time, he confronted the Wife with evidence of her affair. Immediately thereafter, the parties had a private conversation.

284088_1022Wife later claimed that Husband intimidated her during that conversation, but she did not tell the mediator or her attorney about any intimidation during the mediation or at any time prior to the divorce being finalized.

The parties did not settle at mediation.

However, following mediation, Wife’s attorney filed a motion to withdraw, claiming that the Wife wanted to accept an offer of settlement from Husband that the attorney did not believe was reasonable or in the Wife’s best interest. Wife represented herself thereafter.

The parties ultimately signed a Marital Dissolution Agreement and Permanent Parenting Plan. These documents were signed at Husband’s attorney’s office, and Wife was not represented by an attorney at the time.

The trial court entered the Final Decree of Divorce on December 15, 2011.

Five months later, in May 2012, Wife filed a Complaint to Set Aside the Final Decree pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60. The trial court held a hearing on the matter in February 2013. At that hearing, Wife testified that, during her private conversation with the Husband at mediation, the Husband pointed his finger at her in an intimidating way and told her that she was going to agree to his terms or he would have her arrested and taken from her classroom in handcuffs. Wife also alleged that Husband demanded she fire her attorney, threatening to expose the Wife’s affair to their minor children. The Husband denied each of these allegations.

The trial court denied Wife’s complaint to set aside the final decree, determining that the Marital Dissolution Agreement (“MDA”) was a negotiated settlement, that it was fair, and that it was reasonable on its face. Additionally, the court recognized that the Wife entered into the agreement against the advice of her attorney.

Wife appealed.

Appeal

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02 allows a court to relieve a party from a final judgment, order or proceeding if the following are found:

(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.

In these cases, the burden of proof is on the party seeking extraordinary relief to show why that relief is justified. Rule 60.02 is not intended to “relieve a party from his or her free, calculated, and deliberate choices.” Holiday v. Shoney’s S., Inc., 42 S.W.3d 90, 94.

A Marital Dissolution Agreement is a contract and subject to the rules governing contracts. Tennessee has long recognized that a contract, although valid on its face, may not be enforceable if one of the contracting parties acted under duress. Contracts are only valid if entered into freely.

Duress exists when one party, by the unlawful act of another, is induced to make a contract or perform an act under circumstances which deprive the actor of his or her exercise of free will. To constitute duress, the danger must exist, operate upon the mind of the other person, and be the controlling motive for that person performing the act.

To determine if an individual acted under duress, the court should consider the age, sex, intelligence, experience and force of will of that individual. In this case, the trial court found the age, intelligence and life experiences of Wife and Husband to be similar. It further found Wife to be a strong willed person. The trial court listened to 2 recorded telephone calls that took place within days of mediation, and the court found no threats. In fact, there was open discussion between the parties.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed that Wife was not deprived of the exercise of her free will.

The Court of Appeals then looked at whether the parties’ Permanent Parenting Plan should be set aside. Even when parties have an agreed upon parenting plan, trial courts have broad discretion to ensure the plan is in the best interest of the children. In this case, the trial court found the plan to be in the children’s best interest, and the plan was not set aside.

Owen v. Haas, No. M2013-00950-COA-R3-CV.

Attorney Comments:This case illustrates the importance of understanding what kind of agreement you are entering into. Always read a contract thoroughly, and if you are represented by counsel, make sure you discuss your options at length. It is much more difficult to go back and fix a mistake later than to deal with any concerns up front (prior to signing).

If you are concerned about the terms of a Marital Dissolution Agreement or Tennessee Permanent Parenting Plan, contact our office today to schedule your free consultation.

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