Modification of Marital Dissolution Agreement Reversed in Franklin, TN: McKay v. McKay

Facts: Husband and Wife divorced in 2011. The trial court approved their marital dissolution agreement (MDA), which provided:

Wife shall continue to have sole and exclusive possession of the marital residence until it is sold. . . . The parties agree that the [marital residence] shall not be placed on the market for sale until January 1, 2013, unless otherwise agreed on by the parties . . . in writing.

After the divorce, Wife resided in the marital residence with the parties’ minor child until July 2013.

Wife testified that she moved out of the marital residence in July 2013 because Husband had been harassing her regarding her parenting. According to Husband’s testimony, Wife moved out because she was having problems with the homeowners’ association and could not afford to maintain the residence.

Tennessee marital dissolution agreementAfter wife moved out, Husband lived alone in the marital residence. At the time of trial, the home had not been placed on the market.

Wife petitioned to hold Husband in contempt and require him to vacate the marital residence.

The trial court granted Wife’s petition to enforce the MDA, and ordered Husband to vacate the marital residence immediately. The trial court then directed that Wife and the parties’ minor child may remain in the residence until the child graduates from high school or is legally emancipated.

Husband appealed.

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

Husband argued the trial court improperly modified the MDA when it ordered that Wife and their child could reside in the marital residence until the child’s graduation from high school or other emancipation.

Marital dissolution agreements are contractual. Once approved by the trial court, they become legally binding obligations on the parties.

Once an MDA is incorporated into a final decree of divorce, the trial court retains authority to modify spousal and child support but not to modify the parties’ agreement on the distribution of marital property, which is contractual.

The Court determined the trial court had improperly modified the parties’ contractual agreement on the disposition of the marital residence:

[A]lthough the MDA provides a date by which the parties could have, at the earliest, placed the marital residence on the market for sale (January 1, 2013), it does not provide a date by which the parties are required to place the marital residence on the market. . . . Nothing in the MDA provision indicates that the parties anticipated waiting to sell the marital residence until after [their minor child], who was six years of age when the divorce decree was entered, would graduate from high school or become otherwise emancipated, approximately 12 years later. Because the trial court did not retain authority to modify a contractual provision for other than spousal or child support, we conclude that the trial court did not have the authority to modify the parties’ MDA to extend the timeframe for sale of the home beyond a timeframe that reasonably may be inferred from the parties’ original agreement.

In the absence of a valid postdivorce agreement, written and executed by both parties as required by the MDA, the original MDA provision regarding the marital residence retains its contractual nature and remains in effect.

*     *     *     *     *

[T]he trial court went beyond its authority to grant a remedy to Wife when it modified a contractual provision it did not have the authority to modify by extending the timeframe for sale of the marital residence beyond a reasonable time period contemplated in the MDA.

The trial court’s modification of the MDA was reversed, and the case remanded for the trial court to determine a reasonable date by which the parties must place the marital residence on the market for sale.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) It’s been three weeks since the last podcast where I solicited YOUR questions or comments for the next episode. I’ve received some but definitely need more. If you have questions you want answered or topics you want me to address, leave me a voicemail or send an email through the online contact form. Instructions are here. Let’s hear from YOU.

(2) If you haven’t heard the last podcast yet, you’re missing out. It’s really good — definitely worth your time. Listen to it here.

(3) Happy Valentine’s Day!

Herston and Smokey

McKay v. McKay (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 7, 2018).

Posted by

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.

Leave a Comment