Facts: Husband and Wife settled the issues in their divorce. At mediation they signed a marital dissolution agreement (MDA) that requires Husband to pay nonmodifiable alimony to Wife in the amount of $1000 per month for 48 months. It also divides the marital assets 52% to Husband and 48% to Wife.
Shortly thereafter, Wife sent a letter to the judge claiming her lawyer forced her to sign the MDA and physically prevented her from leaving the mediation when she asked to do so.
The trial court held a hearing on the allegations in Wife’s letter. The trial court questioned the mediator, who said he did not witness any conduct by Wife’s attorney consistent with Wife’s allegations. The trial court then reviewed and approved the marital dissolution agreement.
Wife got a new lawyer — her sixth! — and filed a motion to alter or amend the order approving the MDA.
At the hearing, Wife testified that, on the day she went to mediation and signed the MDA, she was suffering from “a lack of being able to make clear judgment calls.” She also claimed Husband had threatened her with “information regarding pornographic materials that he was going to use and post against me.” Finally, she claimed her then-attorney pressured her and refused to allow her to leave until she signed the MDA.
The trial court found Wife was not credible and denied her motion to alter or amend.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Tennessee courts have held that a marital dissolution agreement is a contract and, as such, generally is subject to the rules governing construction of contracts. Marital dissolution agreements have consistently been found to be valid and enforceable contracts.
Duress. 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 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.
The alleged coercive event must be of such severity, either threatened, impending, or actually inflicted, so as to overcome the mind and will of a person of ordinary firmness. To constitute duress, the danger must not only exist, but must be shown to have actually operated upon the mind, and to have constituted the controlling motive for the performance of the act sought to be avoided.
The burden of proof lies with the party asserting duress.
The Court rejected Wife’s claim of duress because the trial court found her to lack credibility and considerable deference must be accorded to such a finding.
Mental incapacity. Persons seeking to show mental incapacity must prove either (1) they are unable to understand in a reasonable manner the nature and consequences of the transaction, or (2) 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. It is not enough to prove that a person was depressed or had senile dementia. To prove mental incapacity, the person with the burden of proof must establish, in light of all the surrounding facts and circumstances, that the cognitive impairment or disease rendered the contracting party incompetent.
It is rare for a court to find that a contract is unenforceable based on the unsound emotional state of a contracting party. The party seeking to avoid a contract on this basis must show that he or she had no reasonable perception or understanding of the nature or terms of the contract.
The Court rejected this argument, too, because Wife’s evidence was insufficient:
The only evidence supporting Wife’s assertion that she was mentally incompetent at the time of the mediation is Wife’s own testimony. There is no medical proof in the record regarding Wife’s physical or mental condition. Wife testified that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, and “cognitive dysfunction.” Regarding her alleged cognitive dysfunction at the time of the mediation, Wife testified:
A. At that particular point in time I was suffering from a lack of being able to make clear judgment calls.
Q. How so?
A. I was suffering from — I had not been able to sleep, I had been traumatized, and I was not having the ability to make clear decisions at that point.
This testimony — in two relatively short answers — is the sum total of the evidence Wife presented regarding her mental incapacity. Husband testified that, during the mediation, Wife appeared alert, lucid, responsive, aware of what was going on, and “able to communicate very well.” When Wife was asked on cross-examination whether she considered herself to be intelligent, she responded, “as intelligent as you, sir.” The trial court noted its own observations of Wife over the course of several hearings, stating that it found her lucid, intelligent, responsive, and that “she knew what she was doing, that she was working with her lawyer.” We hold that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s judgment [that] Wife did not establish mental incapacity as a defense to the enforcement of the MDA.
Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.
K.O.’s Comment: In a footnote, the Court says Mother’s attorney on appeal — her seventh lawyer at that point (!!!) — “filed a motion to withdraw as Wife’s counsel after filing a brief and reply brief and orally arguing on Wife’s behalf. We granted her motion . . . . Apparently, Wife is now proceeding pro se.” I have never seen that before. Yikes.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.