Interpretation of Marital Dissolution Agreement Resolved in Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce: Ramsey v. Reso

Facts: In the parties’ divorce, Wife’s attorney prepared the marital dissolution agreement (MDA). Husband had no attorney.

With no lawyer to advise him, Husband foolishly agreed to pay Wife $900 in child support even though they lived together with the children. He also foolishly agreed to pay alimony of $600 per month even though he was paying all of Wife’s household expenses, including utilities, mortgage, food, and insurance.

The parties agreed to sell a piece of real property, and their MDA reflected that agreement.

tennessee marital dissolution agreementSpecifically, the MDA said, “Said Real Property shall be sold with the equity thereto being equally given to the Wife.” (???)

To no one’s surprise given the wording of the MDA, there was a dispute when the property sold on who should receive the money. Wife said she should receive all the equity. Husband claimed the parties agreed to equally divide the equity.

After a hearing, the trial court determined that the language of the MDA was intended to divide the equity equally between the parties. Therefore, it was ordered that the equity “be divided 50/50 between the parties.”

Wife appealed.

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

When Tennessee courts interpret and enforce a contract, the first inquiry is into the intent of the parties. The search for the intention of the parties begins with the language of the MDA itself. Each provision must be considered in light of the entire agreement, and the language of each provision should be given its natural and ordinary meaning.

Parties’ intent may be found in the plain language of the contract unless the language is ambiguous. The threshold question for courts interpreting contracts is whether the language of the contract is ambiguous.

Where the terms are ambiguous, the intention of the parties cannot be determined by a literal interpretation of the language, and the courts must resort to other rules of construction.

The Court examined the meaning of the word “equally”:

“Equally” is an adverb that derives from the word “equal.” “Equally” is defined as: “1: in an action or uniform manner; 2: to an equal degree.” Another definition of “equally” reads: “1: alike; 2: uniform; on the same plane or level with respect to efficiency, work, value, amount, or rights.”

On the basis of the above-cited definitions for “equally” and “equal,” it is evident that a comparison between one or more things is inherent within each of these terms. These words are commonly used to denote distribution between one or more parties. Had the drafting parties intended for the equity in the house to be awarded solely to Wife they could have easily included that language, which was used in other places in the MDA (“The wife shall receive as her sole and separate property . . . .”). We find that there is no reason for the use of the word “equally” unless the word was being used to describe the equal distribution of the equity in the home relative to the Husband. Equity cannot be divided equally to one person.

The trial court’s ruling was affirmed.

The MDA also included an enforcement provision entitling the prevailing party in any dispute to enforce the MDA to recover his or her attorney’s fees. Citing this provision, Husband was awarded his attorney’s fees on appeal, and the case was remanded to the trial court to determine the appropriate amount.

Ramsey v. Reso (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, April 11, 2018).

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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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