Enforcement of Legal Separation Agreement Challenged in Franklin, Tennessee Divorce: Pless v. Pless

FactsAfter 22 years of marriage, the trial court granted a legal separation and entered a final order of separation that incorporated the parties’ agreed parenting plan and Separation Agreement.

Tennessee legal separationThe Separation Agreement required Husband “to pay $2000 per month to Wife for alimony in futuro. Said alimony shall not be modifiable and shall terminate only upon the death of Wife.”

The Separation Agreement did not mention a future divorce or discuss the viability of the separation agreement if either party sought a divorce.

Seven years later, Husband filed for divorce. He also petitioned to modify or terminate alimony from the legal separation, given Wife’s employment and his changed financial circumstances.

Wife resisted this effort because the Separation Agreement explicitly says the alimony is not modifiable.

After hearing proof of the parties’ finances, the trial court declined to award alimony to Wife.

Wife appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Separation agreements, like marital dissolution agreements, are enforced like contracts. Where parties enter into a contract about alimony, Tennessee courts have discretion as to whether such agreements should be enforced.

Separation agreements rarely are regarded as a final judgment because their terms are subject to being modified as justice and fairness may require. Instead, a legal separation is considered a temporary remedy afforded to parties as an alternative to divorce. Thus, when the trial court grants a divorce following a legal separation, the trial court may adjust the alimony and property rights of the parties.

Tennessee courts consider two factors when determining whether a separation agreement is conclusive as to issues of property and alimony if a future action for divorce occurs:

  • whether the agreement was intended to be a final adjudication of the parties’ rights upon divorce, and
  • whether a full hearing was conducted on the fairness of the agreement, given the parties’ property and income and, if so, whether the same judge that entered the separation order presides over the divorce.

Applying these factors, the Court held the trial court had the authority to modify the alimony provisions of the Separation Agreement:

Here, the language of the Separation Agreement expressly states that it is a final adjudication of the parties’ rights arising from the marriage, but . . . The contract is somewhat ambiguous whether a divorce was actually contemplated at the time the contract was executed. Likewise, nothing in the order of separation entered by the trial court indicates that the trial court contemplated a divorce at the time it approved the Separation Agreement. The record also reflects that the trial court in the separation proceeding did not hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the fairness of any alimony award and did not make an express finding that the alimony award was analyzed and considered adequate and sufficient under the circumstances. Finally, the trial judge who was asked to enter the order of absolute divorce did not preside over the separation proceeding and therefore had no familiarity with the parties or their respective financial situations. . . .

Generally, we enforce contracts between the parties and will not relieve a party from their poor judgment in entering into a bad agreement. In divorces, however, the court performs a special role to ensure that agreements are equitable and legally sufficient pursuant to the mandates of the applicable divorce statutes. As such, agreements entered by the parties are not binding on the divorce court, but only evidential in value. Thus, had this been a simple divorce in which the parties presented the trial court with a marital dissolution agreement, the trial court would have been required to reconsider the obligations thereunder before granting an absolute divorce.

The fact that a legal separation had been granted nearly 10 years prior, without any evidentiary hearing concerning the parties’ finances, without any order indicating the previous trial judge’s intent to apply the Separation Agreement to a future divorce, and without any express finding that the alimony award was appropriate simply does not deprive the trial court of its ability to make such a determination. Indeed, the separation statute mandates that the divorce court “make a final and complete adjudication of the support and property rights of the parties. . . .” Under the particular circumstances of this case, we cannot conclude that the trial court erred in performing its duty under the relevant statute by making its own determination as to whether Wife was entitled to an award of alimony under the applicable statutes given the present circumstances.

The trial court’s decision not to enforce the alimony provision from the Separation Agreement was affirmed.

Pless v. Pless (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 30, 2019).

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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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