In an opinion issued on March 20, 2014, a Dauphin County judge upheld and explained his prior order denying an ex-husband’s request that he be entirely discharged from paying alimony to his ex-wife. The case was Eugene v. Eugene. The ex-husband had asked for discharge of his alimony obligation, which was outlined in his written Marital Settlement Agreement, because it was allegedly impossible for him to make the payments under the agreed method of payment.
The Agreement stated that his payments were to be made via direct auto-drafts from his bank account to PaSCDU (Pennsylvania State Collection and Disbursement Unit). However, the auto-drafts did not happen because PaSCDU required his Social Security number to appear on the payment checks, but his bank refused to do so to prevent identity theft.
In addition to explaining the method for alimony payments, the spouses’ Agreement provided that if the husband failed to make timely payments, the alimony provision could be “referred to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County for enforcement pursuant to its Domestic Relations Office and/or any other relief available under support, alimony or divorce law.”
After the ex-husband missed payments, his ex-wife filed a Petition to Enforce the terms of their Agreement. After the resulting hearing, the judge issued an order revising the Agreement’s terms to require him to send his alimony checks directly to PaSCDU.
On appeal, the ex-husband raised four issues that revolved around the contract doctrine of impossibility and the court’s alleged failure to analyze the case as a contract matter, not a divorce matter.
The court first addressed its method of analysis first, explaining that a divorce agreement is “governed by the law of contracts unless the agreement provides otherwise.” Here, because the parties’ Agreement specifically stated that in the event of a breach, the alimony provision could be referred to the Court for enforcement and/or relief, the Court appropriately analyzed the issue under divorce law. Moreover, under PA divorce law, a court cannot modify alimony terms where they have been reach by agreement of the parties, unless the agreement says so. Therefore, the alimony obligation could not be modified, much less completely discharged.
The court then addressed the ex-husband’s claim of contract impossibility. First, the court denied Husband’s request because procedurally, husband waived his impossibility claim by making three payments in a method other than that outlined in the Marital Settlement Agreement. The court then ruled that his claim failed on the merits, because the method of his payments was “clearly not a basic assumption upon which the Agreement was reached but was a minor logistical provision intended to effectuate the parties’ primary intent, which was that husband pay wife alimony.” The court cited language in the Agreement to show that the parties’ intent was for husband to pay alimony.
This case is a great example of the importance of what details and language are included in marital settlement agreements (also called property settlement agreements). If you are contemplating a divorce that will involve claims of property distribution or alimony and support, you should contact an experienced attorney who can ensure your rights are protected. The family law attorneys at Petrelli Previtera do just that!