Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 11 years of marriage. Their mediated agreement required Husband to pay alimony of $1200 per month for 42 months. It also said his alimony payments “shall cease upon Wife’s remarriage or cohabitation with [a person of the] opposite sex.”
Shortly after the divorce, Wife accused Husband of failing to pay alimony as ordered. Husband responded by claiming that Wife was cohabitating with her boyfriend. He also claimed his income had decreased so he could no longer afford the alimony obligation to which he had agreed.
The trial court ruled that a modification of alimony was justified because of (1) the substantial decrease in Husband’s income, and (2) Wife’s cohabitation with a person of the opposite sex. Because the trial court found that Wife remained economically disadvantaged and in need of alimony, it reduced Husband’s alimony payment to $500 per month for 24 months.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Marital dissolution agreements and mediated agreements are contractual and become legally binding obligations on the parties once they are approved by the trial court. Obligations regarding child support and alimony, however, remain modifiable by the courts.
In resolving a dispute concerning the interpretation of the contract, a Tennessee court’s task is to ascertain the intention of the parties based on the usual, natural, and ordinary meaning of the contract language and to give effect to their intent if it does not conflict with any rule of law or public policy.
The Court enforced the mediated agreement:
Wife and Husband contracted in the mediation agreement that “alimony payments shall cease” upon Wife’s cohabitation with a person of the opposite sex. In its [ruling], the trial court specifically found that Wife had been cohabitating with a person of the opposite sex. The trial court, however, did not terminate Husband’s alimony obligation. Instead, the trial court determined that Wife remained the economically disadvantaged spouse as a result of the divorce and continued Husband’s alimony obligation, albeit modifying the terms of the alimony upon finding a material change in circumstance. . . . Applying contract principles to the parties’ mediation agreement, we determine that the trial court erred by declining to terminate Husband alimony obligation upon its determination that Wife was cohabitating with a person of the opposite sex.
The trial court’s judgment was reversed. Per the mediated agreement, Husband’s alimony obligation was terminated.