Marital Dissolution Agreement Requiring Alimony after Remarriage Enforced in Nashville, Tennessee Divorce: Deluca v. Schumacher

April 1, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: After over 30 years of marriage, Husband and Wife divorced. Their marital dissolution agreement (MDA) said:

Husband agrees to pay alimony as long as Wife shall live in an amount equal to 30% of his gross income at an annual income of $500,000. . . .

Husband’s obligation to pay alimony shall cease upon the death of Wife. Should Husband predecease Wife, his estate shall pay the support obligation as long as Wife is alive. . . . Additionally, the parties agree that should Wife remarry or cohabit more than 90 days with a romantic partner, and should Wife’s new husband or romantic partner have any gross income, determined in the same manner as that of Husband’s, the Husband’s obligation to pay alimony shall be reduced dollar for dollar based on the amount of the gross income of Wife’s new husband or romantic partner, except in no case shall alimony be reduced any lower than the amount of funds needed to pay the first and second mortgages on Wife’s residence . . . .

Seven years after their divorce, Wife remarried.

Tennessee alimony terminationHusband petitioned to terminate his alimony obligation.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Husband because Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(f)(3) says, “An award for alimony in futuro shall terminate automatically and unconditionally upon the death or remarriage of the recipient.”

Wife appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(f)(3) provides that alimony in futuro automatically terminates when the recipient remarries.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(a) says an alimony award “is subject to modification by the court based on the type of alimony awarded, the terms of the court’s decree, or the terms of the parties’ agreement.”

Subsection (n) states that nothing in the alimony statute “shall be construed to prevent the affirmation, ratification, and incorporation in a decree of an agreement between the parties as to the support and maintenance of a party.”

The Court held the trial court was bound by the parties’ agreement:

Recognizing the tension between the enforceability of a valid contract and the court’s continuing authority to modify alimony awards, we have held that trial courts do not retain jurisdiction to modify alimony in cases where the divorcing parties have specified in their MDAs that an alimony award is not modifiable. The reason for the courts’ willingness to enforce these agreements is that parties should be free to obligate themselves by agreement beyond what the courts could order them to do as a matter of law.

* * * * *

The parties’ MDA addressed the possibility of Wife’s remarriage and unambiguously states that Husband’s alimony payments will continue notwithstanding her remarriage[.]

* * * * *

We have [previously] held that the alimony statute is not applicable to reduce or terminate an alimony obligation where the parties have agreed in an MDA to terms different from those contained in the statute even when the MDA does not state that it is not modifiable.

* * * * *

When divorcing parties do not address the statutory conditions warranting a modification or termination of alimony in their MDA, we have held that the alimony obligation is subject to modification or termination according to the statute.

* * * * *

Just as a parent may agree to pay more child support than he or she may be statutorily required to pay, one spouse may agree to pay more alimony to the other spouse then he or she may be statutorily required to pay. By specifying in the MDA that Husband would pay Wife alimony even if she were to remarry, the parties essentially agreed that Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(f)(3) is not applicable to their MDA. An MDA is a contract, and parties are free to contract for provisions outside a statute’s realm. . . .

Courts must interpret contracts so as to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the contracting parties consistent with legal principles. Subsequent modification of an agreement that retains its contractual nature would violate the Tennessee Constitution’s prohibition against the impairment of contractual obligations. We hold that Husband must comply with the terms of the MDA that he signed, and that he is not relieved of his obligation to pay Wife alimony because of her remarriage.

The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment. The MDA also says the prevailing party in any litigation to enforce the MDA may recover all their attorney’s fees. Because of this provision, the Court also awarded Wife all her attorney’s fees in the trial court and on appeal.

Deluca v. Schmacher (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, March 6, 2020).

Marital Dissolution Agreement Requiring Alimony after Remarriage Enforced in Nashville, Tennessee Divorce: Deluca v. Schumacher was last modified: March 29th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

Leave a Comment