Capacity To Enter Into Marital Dissolution Agreement Challenged in Clarksville, Tennessee Divorce: Polster v. Polster

September 22, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband and Wife, married 28 years, separated in February. Wife filed for divorce in April.

Two weeks later, Husband and Wife signed a marital dissolution agreement (MDA) that divided their assets and debts and provided for alimony.

Husband was unrepresented but could have consulted with a lawyer if he wanted.

On the afternoon of the day the agreed divorce was set for final hearing, Husband filed a pleading requesting that the hearing be continued:

[Wife] means everything to me. If a divorce is the only thing I can do to make her happy, a contested divorce is what she will get…. All I am asking for is three months of court-ordered marital counseling…. I just would like every possibility to save my marriage if possible. I am willing to pay for the counseling, and I will even pay all of her attorney and court fees. If she agrees after the three months to continue working this out, her attorney can keep papers on file for an immediate divorce in case she decides to follow through with the divorce of which I will pay for.

You can sign off on the dispersion of our marital property, I don’t care about that. At this point I feel she feels compelled to follow through with the divorce because she has gone this far. All I care about is saving my marriage to my God-given soulmate. I beg you to please grant my request.

Shortly after that, the clerk filed the final decree of divorce approved by the trial court earlier in the day. The trial court found the MDA provided an equitable division of property and incorporated it into the final decree.

Two weeks later, Husband hired an attorney and moved to set aside the final decree and MDA because he was unrepresented throughout the proceedings and was under duress and depressed.

Wife responded by attaching exhibits showing Husband’s involvement in drafting the MDA.

The trial court denied Husband’s motion after finding he had ample time to seek counsel or repudiate his agreement before the divorce was finalized. The trial court also found there was no showing of “how a soon-to-be ex-wife could overcome the free will of the 50-year-old man.”

Husband appealed.

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

Husband first argued his pleading requesting a continuance showed that he withdrew his consent to the uncontested divorce and the entry of the MDA.

Tennessee law provides that a marital dissolution agreement may be enforceable as a contract even if one party withdraws consent before the judgment is entered if the MDA is otherwise a validly enforceable contract. The MDA cannot be repudiated simply by withdrawing consent before the court’s approval.

The Court found Husband’s argument unavailing:

[T]he MDA in this case was reduced to writing and signed by both parties, as witnessed by a notary public. Thus, it is a contract, and its enforceability is governed by contract law….

*     *     *     *     *

The parties executed the MDA 50 days prior to the court’s consideration of the record and entry of the final decree. Importantly, Husband’s [] pleading contained no statement that could’ve led the court to conclude that he no longer agreed to the terms of the MDA or that he was experiencing duress or suffering from a mental incapacity when he executed it. The pleading also contained no statement indicating that he believed that the MDA’s property division was inequitable. To the contrary, he said the court “can sign off on the dispersion of our marital property, I don’t care about that.” Moreover, the MDA contains the following language:

(17) RECONCILIATION. This agreement shall take effect immediately upon the signing of the same by the parties, subject to the approval of the court granting the parties’ divorce. It is the parties’ intention that a reconciliation, either temporary or permanent, shall in no way affect the provisions of this agreement having to do with the settlement and disposition of their property rights in their respective realty, if any, and personal property, unless a new agreement is entered into in writing mutually revoking and resending this agreement and entering into a new one.

Thus, even if Husband’s desire to participate in court-ordered counseling had been granted and resulted in reconciliation with Wife, it would not have an effect on the terms of the MDA. The pleading he filed [] provided no basis for the court to invalidate the MDA.

Because nothing could have led the trial court to conclude that Husband had withdrawn his consent to the divorce or believed the MDA was invalid, the trial court had the authority to grant the parties an agreed divorce. The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Husband then argued the MDA should be set aside because he signed it under duress and while suffering from “severe depression.”

Tennessee law provides that people can be excused from their contractual obligations on the ground of incompetency only when

  • they cannot reasonably understand the nature and consequences of the transaction, or
  • when they cannot act reasonably in relation to the transaction, and the other party has reason to know of their condition.

The Court found no evidence to support Husband’s claim:

Husband asserted no facts in his motion to alter or amend that satisfy either prong. Wife’s response and its attached exhibits show that Husband refused to sign several previous drafts of the MDA and had input on the version that was finally signed. His statements in his [] pleading invited the trial court to “sign off on the dispersion of our marital property.” Husband has set forth no evidence that he was suffering from a lack of mental capacity when he signed the MDA such that it should have been set aside.

Finally, the Court awarded Wife her attorney’s fees on appeal because—you guessed it—the MDA contained an enforcement provision entitling the prevailing party to recover attorney’s fees.

Polster v. Polster (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 14, 2021).

If you found this helpful, please share it using the buttons below.

Capacity To Enter Into Marital Dissolution Agreement Challenged in Clarksville, Tennessee Divorce: Polster v. Polster was last modified: September 23rd, 2021 by K.O. Herston

Leave a Comment