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Tennessee Court Upholds Marital Dissolution Agreement Against Wife’s Wishes


Every state in the country has its own set of laws governing marriage and divorce. These legal requirements cover most aspects of divorce, from how one spouse serves the other with notice of the proceeding to the court’s final order dissolving the marriage. It is important to understand that these laws may vary somewhat from place to place, and the differences can affect each party’s rights. We all know that divorce is a difficult, emotional process, one that can become even more trying if there are children involved. If you are contemplating separating from your spouse, it is imperative that you speak with an experienced family law attorney in the Nashville area, someone who is fully aware of the local laws and court procedures affecting your case.

Under Tennessee law, a couple may seek a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. One of the requirements under this particular statute is that the parties enter into a properly executed marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”). In a recent divorce case, Hawkins v. Le-Hawkins, the court of appeals upheld an MDA that was executed while the wife’s petition for a legal separation was pending before the court. This case presents a unique sequence of events. The wife filed for legal separation against her husband in February 2011. On January 25, 2011, the couple both signed the MDA that was prepared by the wife’s attorney in contemplation of the complaint for legal separation.

Significant to this case is the particular language of the MDA, which essentially provided that the agreement shall be incorporated into any divorce decree entered between the parties. It also served to divide the couple’s property and allocate the wife’s alimony award. Shortly after she filed the MDA with the court, the wife’s attorney submitted an order for absolute divorce, which incorporated the MDA in the final decree. The court approved and entered the order. Meanwhile, the wife hired a new attorney who moved to set aside the decree, arguing that it was not the relief requested in the complaint and that she believed the husband was hiding assets that were not included in the MDA.

The trial court set aside the divorce and dismissed the case in its entirety. Less than a week later, the husband filed a complaint for an absolute divorce, alleging irreconcilable differences, relying on the parties’ stipulation in the 2011 MDA. In response, the wife contested the divorce and argued that the MDA was invalid. The trial court held a hearing on the enforceability of the MDA and concluded that it was a valid agreement and binding on the parties, and it entered a divorce decree adopting the terms of the MDA. The wife appealed, arguing that the MDA was unenforceable because it did not equitably divide the marital assets and because it was not in compliance with Tennessee Code § 36-4-103. Specifically, she claimed that the MDA did not refer to this underlying divorce action from which the appeal arises, and it was not entered into in contemplation of the husband’s petition for divorce.

The court of appeals rejected her arguments and affirmed the decision, finding that the evidence supported the trial court’s ruling. The crux of the holding is that the express language of the MDA evinced the parties’ contemplation of an action for divorce in which the agreement would be included as a full and final settlement of the couple’s property rights.

Most divorce cases are complicated and require a thorough understanding of the local laws and how they apply to each set of circumstances. Widrig Law PLLC is an experienced local Nashville law firm that handles contested divorce cases, uncontested divorce cases, and many other family law matters. To understand how to protect your rights, call Widrig Law at 615-417-7800 to schedule a consultation.

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