Modification of Marital Dissolution Agreement Rejected in Dandridge, TN Divorce: Worgan v. Worgan

Facts: The parties were divorced by agreement. Their Marital Dissolution Agreement provided, in relevant part: “Husband and Wife expressly certify and acknowledge they have entered this Agreement upon mature consideration, that they have each fully disclosed all of their assets, and that all of said assets have been distributed herein.” The trial court incorporated the Marital Dissolution Agreement into the Final Judgment of Divorce by reference.

Eleven months later, Wife filed a Rule 60.02 motion to alter or amend alleging that the Marital Dissolution Agreement failed to divide Husband’s pension, which pension is marital property. Wife alleged, “[T]his oversight certainly must have resulted from a mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect.”

The trial court denied Wife’s motion, finding “there was no mutual mistake, only a unilateral mistake on the part of the Wife.”

Wife appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02, provides, in pertinent part:

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. The motion shall be made within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1) and (2) not more than one year after the judgment, order or proceeding was entered or taken. . . . This rule does not limit the power of a court to entertain an independent action to relieve a party from a judgment, order or proceeding, or to set aside a judgment for fraud upon the court.

Tennessee courts have characterized relief under Rule 60.02 as an “exceptional remedy” designed to strike a proper balance between the competing principles of finality and justice. Rule 60.02 provides an “escape valve” that is not easily opened. Courts have reversed relief granted under Rule 60.02 where the judgment was not oppressive or onerous. Relief under Rule 60.02 is not meant to be used in every case in which the circumstances of a party change after the entry of a judgment or order, nor by a party who is merely dissatisfied with a particular outcome.

A party seeking relief under Rule 60.02 must substantiate the request with clear and convincing evidence. 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. In other words, the evidence must be such that the truth of the facts asserted is highly probable. In general, the bar for attaining relief is set very high and the burden borne by the movant is heavy.

All motions for relief based on Rule 60.02 must be made within a reasonable time. Motions based on Rule 60.02(1) or (2) shall be made “not more than one year after the judgment, order or proceeding was entered or taken.” In other words, one year is the outer limit on the time allowed for filing the motion under 60.02(1) or (2). Rule 60.02 does not permit a litigant to slumber on her claims and then belatedly attempt to relitigate issues long since laid to rest.

A marital dissolution agreement is essentially a contract between a husband and wife in contemplation of divorce proceedings. An MDA is to be looked upon and enforced as an agreement, and is to be construed as other contracts as respects its interpretation, its meaning and effect. Moreover, generally speaking, the parties are not entitled to a marital dissolution agreement that is different from the one they negotiated.

After reviewing the record, the Court commented:

The trial court found that wife had ample time to review the MDA before she signed it; that she did in fact review it; and that she told husband’s attorney that she was going to take it to her attorney to review. Wife does not dispute these findings. It is obvious that husband did not hide the existence of his pension, because wife testified that she was aware of it but mistakenly thought it would be divided later. A cursory reading of the MDA, however, should have put wife on notice that this document is designed to finally and forever conclude the parties’ rights growing out of their marriage… There is no indication in the record that wife was deceived or misled in any way before she signed the MDA. Wife has not established any ground for reopening the final divorce judgment under Rule 60.02.

Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Worgan v. Worgan (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, April 30, 2014).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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