Two weeks later, Wife filed a pleading indicating she wanted to rescind her previous agreement to the MDA and parenting plan. Husband subsequently filed a motion to enforce the agreements.
At the hearing, Wife alleged she was under duress when she signed the agreements. Wife claimed financial and emotional pressure caused her to enter into the agreements. At the time the agreements were signed, the parties’ marital home had been sold, and Wife had less than one month to move out of the home and find her own residence. Wife was also unemployed and concerned she had no means of support. Additionally, Wife claimed Husband told her “if she ever had any hope of reconciliation or continuing a relationship, she had to reach an agreement that day.”
The trial court found Wife was not under duress when she entered into the agreements. Specifically, the trial court found:
There is no indication that [Wife’s] decision-making was so unduly influenced by any action of [Husband] so as to practically destroy her free agency and cause her to do an act and make a contract not of her own volition. Indeed, her own testimony was that part of the reason she agreed to this was so that it would be done early and she would be able to avoid the delays associated with going to trial and would not have to be facing financial uncertainty, as she needed to leave the marital residence and purchase her own residence. That hardly sounds like one who is acting not of their own volition but is weighing the circumstances and deciding that: Even though it might be a bad situation, I’m willing to take it.
The trial court entered a judgment of divorce approving the MDA and parenting plan.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
“Duress” is defined as a condition of mind produced by the improper external pressure or influence that practically destroys the free agency of a party, and causes the party to do an act or make a contract not of the party’s own volition, but under such wrongful external pressure.
When determining whether a party experienced duress, the court has to consider the age, sex, intelligence, experience and force of will of the party, the nature of the act, and all the relevant facts and circumstances.
If proven, duress would be sufficient to justify rescission of the MDA.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
Wife claims that Husband compelled her to sign the settlement agreement and MDA because he told her there would be no hope for reconciliation between them if she did not sign the settlement agreement. Although this ultimatum may have put emotional stress on Wife, it does not amount to legal duress.
Additionally, the record does not indicate that the disparity between Husband’s and Wife’s incomes was sufficient to constitute legal duress. Although Wife’s financial situation at the settlement conference certainly could have created a sense of urgency, the pressure was not wrongfully created by Husband to overcome Wife’s will. The record indicates that at the time she signed the MDA, Wife was willing to accept a lower financial settlement in order to avoid extensive divorce proceedings. Her decision to enter into the MDA was a voluntary and calculated one, not one made under improper pressure. Perhaps most importantly, Wife was represented by independent counsel who was capable of explaining the terms of the contract to her.
Accordingly, the trial court was affirmed and the agreements upheld.
K.O.’s Comment: It is worth nothing the MDA contained a common provision requiring an award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in an action to enforce the MDA. Pursuant to this provision, the trial court ordered Wife to pay nearly $33,000 to Husband for his attorney’s fees. That attorney fee award was also upheld on appeal.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.