Facts: Husband and Wife are the divorced parents of two children. Their marital dissolution agreement required Husband to make monthly lump-sum payments to Wife, a portion of which was designated as child support and the remainder as property division.
Three years after they were divorced, Husband moved to modify his payment amount. Wife countered with a motion for contempt because Husband unilaterally reduced his court-ordered payment by $2000 in violation of the marital dissolution agreement.
When the trial ended, the trial court took the matter under advisement and directed each party to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.
Then the trial court adopted verbatim Wife’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in their entirety with no modification. Wife was awarded a judgment of over $82,000 plus over $14,000 for attorney’s fees.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment.
Marital dissolution agreements are contractual and, once approved by the trial court, become legally binding obligations on the parties. The exceptions to this rule involve child support and alimony, both of which remain modifiable by the court.
Trial courts speak through their written orders, and the judgment entered by the trial court must be the independent judgment of the trial court.
In Tennessee, party-prepared findings of fact, conclusions of law, or orders are acceptable if two conditions are satisfied. First, they must accurately reflect the decision of the trial court. Second, the record must not create doubt that the decision represents the trial court’s own deliberation and decision.
The Court of Appeals rejects party-prepared findings, conclusions, and orders when the record fails to provide insight into the trial court’s reasoning to support its decision or the record raises a question as to whether the findings, conclusions, and orders are the trial court’s own independent judgment.
Here, the Court vacated the trial court’s verbatim adoption of Wife’s findings of fact and conclusions of law:
Upon a thorough review of the record, we cannot make a determination that the proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law prepared by Wife represent the trial court’s own independent analysis and judgment.
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[T]he trial court’s verbatim adoption of Wife’s findings of fact and conclusions of law without any oral ruling or direction from the trial court raises the appearance that the court merely chose between two provided options rather than fashioning a considered, independent ruling based on the evidence, the filings, arguments of counsel, and applicable legal principles.
The trial court’s ruling was vacated and the case remanded for the entry of findings of fact and conclusions of law that reflect the trial court’s independent deliberations and decision.
K.O.’s Comment: For another example of where a party-prepared order was vacated, see In re Marneasha D. These cases illustrate why the Court of Appeals says the practice of entering party-prepared orders is not recommended although such orders can be approved under the circumstances explained above.