Judges Opinions, — January 4, 2023 15:58 — 0 Comments

Terri L. Mease, v. Randall E. Mease

Terri L. Mease, v. Randall E. Mease

 

Civil Action-Family Law-Divorce-Support-Marriage Settlement Agreement-Oral Agreement-Contracts-Enforceability-Conduct-Intent

 

Randall E. Mease (“Husband”) filed a Petition for Special Relief seeking to enforce an oral marriage settlement agreement after Terri L. Mease (“Wife”) filed an Amended Divorce Complaint seeking alimony and alimony pendente lite on the basis that he did not seek child support from Wife at the time of their separation in June of 2020 in exchange for Wife’s agreement not to pursue alimony or alimony pendente lite as part of the oral agreement.

 

  1. A property settlement agreement is enforceable using the same legal principles to determine the validity of a contract.

 

  1. Parties may bind themselves to an oral contract prior to the memorialization of the terms to a written document.

 

  1. If the parties have agreed on the essential terms, the contact is enforceable even though recorded only in an informal memorandum that requires future approval or negotiation of incidental terms.

 

  1. The conduct and the intent of the parties should be examined to determine whether an agreement has been reached.

 

  1. While parties have no power to bargain away the rights of their children, claims for alimony and alimony pendente lite under the Divorce Code may be waived by agreement where the agreement has been acted upon by the parties or enforcement of the agreement will not create an unjust result.

 

  1. The conduct of both parties indicates that the parties had reached a final agreement on the essential terms of their divorce through the oral marriage settlement agreement including Wife’s agreement not to seek spousal support, alimony pendente lite and alimony warranting enforcement of the oral agreement where Wife admitted that she had agreed not to seek support, Wife honored that agreement throughout the duration of the time when the parties were working toward a written agreement, Husband took actions in accordance with the agreement including never filing for support for the parties’ children and Wife sought alimony and support only after the children no longer were eligible for support.

 

L.C.C.C.P. No. 2020-20272, Opinion by John C. Tylwalk, President Judge, May 11, 2022.

 

 

 

 

IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF LEBANON COUNTY

PENNSYLVANIA

 

CIVIL ACTION – FAMILY DIVISION

 

TERRI L. MEASE,                                     :         NO. 2020-20272

Plaintiff/Respondent       :

:

  1. :

:

RANDALL E. MEASE,                     :

Defendant/Petitioner       :

 

ORDER OF COURT

 

AND NOW, this 11th day of May, 2022, upon consideration of Defendant’s Petition for Special Relief to Enforce Settlement Agreement, the evidence adduced at the hearing conducted on November 29, 2021, and the parties’ post-hearing Briefs, it is hereby Ordered as follows:

  1. A valid agreement exists between the parties.
  2. Respondent Terri L. Mease has breached the parties’ agreement by filing claims for alimony pendent lite and alimony.
  3. Respondent Terri L. Mease is Ordered to comply with the terms agreed upon by the parties and is prohibited from pursuing her claims for alimony pendent lite and alimony in this action.
  4. Petitioner Randall E. Mease’s request for attorney’s fees is DENIED.

BY THE COURT:

 

                                                          ____________________________, P.J.

                                                          JOHN C. TYLWALK

 

JCT/jah

 

Cc:  Rebecca Smith, Esquire/1118 Penn Avenue/Wyomissing, PA  19610

       Loreen Burkett, Esquire

       Rosamund Presby, Esquire/Domestic Relations Section

       Judith Huber, Esquire/Law Clerk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF LEBANON COUNTY

PENNSYLVANIA

 

CIVIL ACTION – FAMILY DIVISION

 

TERRI L. MEASE,                                     :         NO. 2020-20272

Plaintiff/Respondent       :

:

  1. :

:

RANDALL E. MEASE,                     :

Defendant/Petitioner       :

 

APPEARANCES:

REBECCA A. SMITH, ESQUIRE            FOR TERRI L. MEASE

BENTLEY, GIBSON, KOPECKI,

    SMITH, P.C.

 

LOREEN M. BURKETT, ESQUIRE                 FOR RANDALL E. MEASE

WEISS BURKETT

 

OPINION, TYLWALK, P.J., MAY 11, 2022.

 

The parties in this divorce action were married on April 11, 1998.  They separated in June 2020 when Plaintiff Terri L. Mease (“Wife”) moved out of the marital home.  They are the parents of three daughters.  Their twins, Hayden and Hannah, had turned 18 on June 25, 2021 and had graduated high school by the time of the hearing.  Their older daughter, Mackenzie, was 19 years old.  Prior to Wife moving out of the home, the parties engaged in discussions regarding their separation, divorce, and division of marital property; however, they have never executed a written document regarding these terms.

Defendant Randall E. Mease (“Husband”) has filed a Petition for Special Relief alleging that Wife agreed to refrain from filing for spousal support, alimony pendent lite and alimony and Husband agreed that he would not seek child support from Wife at the time of separation.  He claims that Wife has breached the terms of their agreement by filing a complaint seeking alimony pendent lite after the eighteenth birthday and high school graduation of the parties’ twin daughters and asks us to enforce the terms of the parties’ alleged oral agreement to prohibit her from pursuing that claim.  We conducted a hearing on the Petition on November 29, 2021, a transcript has been lodged, and both parties have filed post-hearing Briefs.  The matter is now before us for disposition.

The evidence adduced at the hearing indicates that the parties’ twin daughters remained in the marital home with Husband after Wife moved out.  Husband testified that prior to Wife moving out, they had agreed to split the marital estate 50/50, that Husband would not file for child support, and that Wife would not file for support or alimony.  They agreed that Husband would stay in the marital home and that he would either buy out Wife’s share or that the home would be sold.

After she moved out, Wife hired Meghan Huff, Esquire to initiate divorce proceedings and draft a settlement agreement setting forth the terms of the parties’ discussions.  On June 29, 2020, Attorney Huff forwarded a draft of a Marriage Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) to Husband.  (Exhibit “2”)  In her accompanying letter, Attorney Huff stated “I enclosed a draft of the marriage settlement agreement which comprises Terri’s proposal of how the marital assets are divided” and requested that Husband provide his position regarding the MSA within twenty days.  (Exhibit “1”)  The MSA included provisions regarding division of the parties’ retirement accounts. (Exhibit “2” at Para. 9) However, descriptions  and values of the various accounts were left blank pending the parties’ receipt of information and documents regarding those items.

The MSA also included the following provisions:

  1. SPOUSAL SUPPORT, ALIMONY PENDENTE LITE, ALIMONY AND

CHILD SUPPORT

 

(A)  Except as otherwise stated in this Agreement, there shall be no alimony, spousal support, and/or maintenance due either from Husband to Wife or from Wife to Husband.  Husband and Wife voluntarily and intelligently both waive any right that he or she may have to alimony, spousal support, and/or maintenance from the other.

 

(c) In exchange for Wife’s waiver of alimony, Husband hereby agrees that he will not seek child support from Wife, and Husband shall be solely responsible for any and all expenses related to the parties’ minor children, including without limitation, basic support, except activities, sport expenses, lessons, camps and the like, which costs shall be equally shared by the parties.  Should Husband seek child support in violation of this paragraph, Husband agrees that whatever amounts he is awarded as child support by the Court (including through Domestic Relations) will be offset, dollar-for-collar, by an alimony payment to (sic) from Husband to Wife for any and all months for which Husband is awarded child support.

 

 

  1. (b) The parties have heretofore filed joint federal, state and local income tax returns from the date of marriage through tax year 2020. Both parties agree that in the event any deficiency in federal, state or local income tax is proposed, or any assessment of any such tax is made against either of them, each will defend, indemnify and hold harmless the other from and against any loss or liability for any such tax deficiency or assessment.  Such tax, interest, penalty, or expense shall be paid solely and entirely by the individual who is finally determined to be the cause of the misrepresentations or failures to disclose the nature and extent of his or her separate income on the aforesaid joint returns.

 

(c)  If the parties are entitled to a refund for the year 2020, said refund shall be equally divided by the parties.  Husband and Wife shall proportionately pay, based on their gross incomes for 2020, any tax liability, if any, for the tax year 2020.

 

(d)  The parties agree that, for tax year 2021 and each odd-numbered year thereafter, Wife shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Mackenzie R. Mease through the remaining years of the such (sic) child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption.  Husband shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Mackenzie R. Mease for the tax year 2022 and each even-numbered year theafter (sic) through the remaining years of the such (sic) child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption.  The parties further agree that, for tax year 2021 and each year thereafter, Wife shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Hannah M. Mease through the remaining years of the such (sic) child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption, and Husband shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Hayden Z. Mease through the remaining year of the such (sic) child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption.  Husband and Wife agree to execute as often as required any and all documents included, but not limited to, the “Release of Claim to Exemption for Child of Divorce or Separated Parents” required by the Internal Revenue Service.

 

(Exhibit “2” at Para. 15(a), (c); Para. 18(b)-(d))

 

Husband testified that the MSA provided by Attorney Huff accurately set forth the terms agreed upon by the parties before Wife moved out of the home.  He agreed that everything would be split 50/50, including their retirement accounts, and that he would refinance the house if he decided to remain there or else the house would be sold.  In addition, the parties had also agreed that Wife would not file for temporary or permanent alimony and Husband would not seek child support even though the children remained with him post-separation.  Husband explained that the blanks left under Paragraph 9 regarding retirement accounts were to be filled in later because they did not know the numbers at that point.  He understood that Paragraph 18(d) of the MSA prepared by Attorney Huff provided for the parties to share the dependency exemptions for the children.

Husband explained that when he first received the MSA, he did not have an attorney.  He obtained counsel to represent him in the divorce action in November of 2020.  After consulting with his attorney, he decided that the agreement was fine but that a few minor changes were necessary.  As a result, Husband’s counsel sent Attorney Huff a letter dated November 25, 2020 notifying her that most of the MSA’s provisions were acceptable but requesting changes regarding Wife’s retrieval of her personal items from the home, Wife taking over the payments on her vehicle, the transfer of title to Husband’s vehicles, documentation regarding Husband’s 401k account, and the children’s post-high school expenses.  (Exhibit “3”)  Husband also requested a change to Paragraph 18:

  1. Paragraph 18(b) and (c) must be removed, since they required the parties to file their tax returns together, and Husband has not determined whether or not this is in his best interest.  This should not be part of the agreement.

 

Paragraph 18(d) must also be removed.  Husband is not in agreement to the dependency deduction being taken equally by the parties.  Husband has had custody of the children and it is his position that he is entitled to the dependency deduction so long as he has custody.  In the event that custody would change, this could be revisited.

 

(Exhibit “3”)

Husband testified that Attorney Huff did not respond to that letter for some time.  On March 18, 2021, Husband’s attorney emailed Attorney Huff asking for information on Wife’s PSERS account, stating “I believe that is what is holding things up here.”  (Exhibit “4”)  On March 22, 2021, Attorney Huff responded that nothing had changed in the terms of the PSERS, but that they needed to rework some of the dates in the MSA.  (Exhibit “5”)  Attorney Huff requested that Husband’s attorney “[p]lease advise if you and your client are ready to move forward, let me know with the MSA.”  (Exhibit “5”)

After obtaining figures from an actuary, Husband’s counsel emailed Attorney Huff with information regarding the PSERS issue on April 8, 2021.  (Exhibit “8”)  Attached to the email was a revised MSA.  Husband’s counsel noted that “I added the retirement numbers in #9.  If the revised paragraph comports with your understanding, we can revise some of the time frames stated in the current agreement and get it ready for signature.”  (Exhibit “8)  In that draft of the MSA, Paragraph 18(c) was crossed out.  Paragraph 18(d) provided:

  1. (d) The parties agree that, for tax year 2020 and each year thereafter, Husband shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Mackenzie R. Mease through the remaining years of such child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption.  The parties further agree that, for tax year 2020 and each year thereafter, Wife shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Hannah M. Mease through the remaining years of such child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption and Husband shall claim the dependency exemption and child tax credit for Hayden Z. Mease through the remaining years of such child’s eligibility for the dependency exemption.  Husband and Wife agree to execute as often as required any and all documents including, but not limited to, the “Release of Claim to Exemption for Child of Divorce or Separated Parents” required by the Internal Revenue Service.

 

(Exhibit “8,” Para. 18(d))

 

Husband believed that the terms of the MSA sent to Attorney Huff by his counsel were substantially the same as in the draft he had received from Attorney Huff in June 2020 except that the figures for the parties’ retirement accounts were filled in to Paragraph 9.   Husband confirmed that he had never filed a claim for child support based on the parties’ agreement.

By email dated May 19, 2021, Attorney Huff informed Husband’s counsel that she was no longer representing Wife in the divorce.  Husband’s counsel subsequently received notice that Wife’s new counsel, Rebecca Smith, Esquire, had taken over her representation by email dated June 4, 2021. (Exhibit “10”)  On July 1, 2021, Husband’s counsel emailed Attorney Smith indicating that the parties had already reached an agreement and that it just needed to be signed:

My understanding is that the parties’ agreement has already been negotiated and we are just finishing up the signing of the agreement to finalize.  The parties recently had the house appraised and are awaiting that value.  Does your client intend to reneg on their agreement?

 

(Exhibit “11”)  On August 3, 2021, Husband’s counsel again reached out to Attorney Smith by email:  “Where are we with finalizing the settlement agreement in this case?”  (Exhibit “12”)  On that date, Attorney Smith responded:

We have the house appraisal.  Did you see it?  It came in at 191k.  The prior negotiations detailed no alimony in exchange for no child support.  The kids are now emancipated, so child support is no longer an issue.  She wants to address alimony.  I asked you before for his pay stubs.  Can  you get them to me?

 

(Exhibit “12”)  On September 23, 2021, Wife filed an Amended Divorce Complaint requesting alimony pendent lite and permanent alimony. (Exhibit “13”)

Husband explained that he believed that the parties had an agreement and that Wife would be signing the MSA with the terms agreed upon in June of 2020.  He believed that he had complied with the terms of that agreement by obtaining information regarding the parties’ retirement accounts, in refraining from filing for child support, and by getting an appraisal of the home and working toward refinancing.

On cross-examination, Husband acknowledged that in June 2020, the parties had agreed that each one would claim one of the twins on their taxes and that this agreement was included in the MSA sent to him in June 2020 and alternate the exemption for their other daughter.  However, after he retained counsel, he was not in agreement with the dependency deduction being taken equally by the parties. (Exhibit “3”)  As a result, Paragraph 18 was changed with regard to the dependency deductions.  He also acknowledged that some dates had been changed and some figures had been inserted into the MSA.  He admitted that he had not complied with the original dates for obtaining an appraisal of the home and in asserting the option to refinance which were included in the original MSA.  However, he explained that these changes in Exhibit “8” were made in order to update the timeline for events, add values for the retirement accounts, and that the substance of the original agreement with regard to spousal support, child support, Husband’s purchase or refinance of the house, and division of retirement accounts never changed.

At the hearing, Attorney Huff was called as a witness by Wife.  Attorney Huff explained that she had an initial consultation with Wife approximately one year before the Divorce Complaint was filed.  In the version of the MSA she sent to Husband in June 2020, the parties were going to split the dependency exemptions for the twins and alternate the exemption for the older daughter.  She noted that Husband’s counsel had sent her a letter indicating that Husband was not in agreement with the MSA’s provision regarding dependency deductions (Exhibit “3”) and that subsequently, additional drafts of the MSA were passed back and forth between the parties’ attorneys.  Other changes were made regarding the pension information and deadlines and some paragraphs were stricken from the MSA.  Attorney Huff noted that Wife had voiced concerns about the children’s post high school support and that Husband’s attorney was going to confer with him about that matter.  She opined that there were still ongoing negotiations between the parties while she was representing Wife and that they had not reached a final resolution prior to the termination of her representation.

On cross-examination, Attorney Huff agreed that despite the changes and additions made in the MSA, the substance of the parties’ agreement never really changed.   She did opine that the children’s emancipation would have required changes in the agreement.  She confirmed that she had routinely communicated updates on the negotiations with Wife by email throughout her representation.

Wife testified that prior to her moving from the marital home, she and Husband had discussed the potential settlement of the marital estate and that Attorney Huff had included the terms they had decided upon in the MSA sent to Husband in June 2020.  Wife noted that both she and Husband subsequently made changes to the agreement.  Wife admitted that she had agreed not to take spousal support or alimony and that Husband agreed not to take child support.  With regard to dependency tax exemptions, she noted that the parties had originally agreed to split those for the twins and alternate the exemption for their older daughter every other year.  She believed that Husband’s requested change with regard to the dependency deductions was a substantive change to the terms of their agreement.

Wife claimed that she did not know where things stood with the MSA when she terminated Attorney Huff’s representation.  She felt nothing had actually been agreed upon as nothing had been signed.  She also made changes to the last version of the MSA she received from Attorney Huff and believed that, as of March or April of 2021, the parties were still involved in negotiations regarding settlement of the marital estate.  She claimed that she did not know what was going on with the home as the appraisal was not done until June 2021.

Wife acknowledged that the twins were emancipated on June 25, 2021 and that she filed for spousal support in September 2021.   She explained that the only provision of the agreement she was disputing was the provision regarding alimony and that she was still in agreement with the 50/50 split and with Husband’s option to retain and refinance the home.

On cross-examination, Wife confirmed that she was still in agreement with the remainder of the terms agreed upon in June 2020 and admitted that she had agreed not to take spousal support or alimony at that time.  Wife also acknowledged that the parties were both in agreement that neither would be responsible for the children’s post-high school expenses.  She believed the only unresolved issues were the splitting of the dependency exemptions and whether Husband was going to keep the marital home.  She admitted that Husband had upheld his end of the bargain as he had looked into refinancing, had continued to make the house payments and the payments on her car, and had refrained from filing for child support.   Upon questioning by the Judge, Wife explained that she had decided to file for spousal support because she did not have enough money for appropriate housing due to her earnings and the fact that nothing had been done about the marital home yet.

In Pennsylvania, a property settlement agreement is enforceable by using the same legal principles utilized in determining the validity of a contract.  Luber v. Luber, 614 A.2d 771, 773 (Pa. Super. 1992), allocator denied 631 A.2d 1008 (Pa. 1993).  Parties may bind themselves to an oral contract prior to the memorialization of the terms to a written document.  Id. at 773.  However, “not every term of a contract must always be stated in complete detail.”  Helpin v. Trustees of University of Pennsylvania, 969 A.2d 601, 611 (Pa. Super. 2009), citing Snaith v. Snaith, 282 Pa.Super. 450, 422 A.2d 1379, 1382 (1980). If the parties have agreed on the essential terms, the contract is enforceable even though recorded only in an informal memorandum that requires future approval or negotiation of incidental terms. Helpin at 611, citing Yellow Run Coal Co. v. Alma–Elly–Yv Mines, Ltd. 426 A.2d 1152, 1155 (Pa. Super. 1981).

Husband cites a Lebanon County case, Himelright v. Himelright, 22 Pa. D. & C. 4th (C.C.P. Leb.Cnty. 1994) which involved a situation similar to this matter.  In Himelright, a special master had been appointed and a hearing was scheduled.  However, the parties reached an agreement regarding alimony, alimony pendent lite, counsel fees, costs and expenses and notified the special master that the hearing was not necessary despite the fact that the agreement had not been reduced to writing.  After a draft of the agreement was completed, the husband refused to sign the agreement.  He made additional demands that his name be removed from the mortgage lien against the marital property, that he receive his share of the marital residence within 60 days after signing the settlement agreement rather than the 90 days stated in the proposal, and that he be given title to and possession of the parties’ dog. He argued that the correspondence between the parties’ attorneys were proposals or rough drafts and that a final agreement was never entered.  The wife filed a motion to enforce the agreement.  In discussing the enforceability of a property settlement agreement, the court stated:

“A property settlement agreement is enforceable by utilizing the same rules of law used in determining the validity of contracts. Lipschutz v. Lipschutz, 391 Pa. Super. 537, 571 A.2d 1046 (1990). It is established law in this Commonwealth that parties may bind themselves contractually prior to the execution of a written document through mutual manifestations of assent, even where a later formal document is contemplated. Krause v. Great Lakes Holdings Inc., 387 Pa. Super. 56, 563 A.2d 1182 (1989), appeal denied, 524 Pa. 629, 574 A.2d 70 (1989). The intent of the parties to be bound is a question of fact which must be determined by the factfinder. Johnston v. Johnston, 346 Pa. Super. 427, 499 A.2d 1074 (1985).”

 

Himelright, supra at 486, citing Luber v. Luber, 614 A.2d at 773.  

The court rejected the husband’s arguments, finding that it is the conduct and intent of the parties that determines whether an agreement has been reached.  The court noted:

In the present case defendant offered a settlement agreement which plaintiff accepted and proceeded to draft.  Based upon the proposed agreement both parties told this court and the special master that no hearing was necessary.  Defendant then demanded two changes:  (1) his name be removed from the mortgage lien against the marital residence, and he receive his share of the marital residence within 60 days after signing the settlement agreement rather than the 90 days stated in the proposal, and (2) that he be given title to and possession of the dog, Tillie.

Plaintiff agreed to those conditions, whereupon defendant refused to sign the agreement. Then, once again, defendant’s attorney contacted plaintiff’s attorney and stated that the original agreement was acceptable as long as the two conditions were met. Plaintiff again agreed, and defendant again refused to sign.

 

Defendant contends that he never intended to be bound to the agreement.  We find defendant’s testimony incredible.  Defendant’s conduct indicates he proposed and agreed to the terms of the settlement agreement, and he intended to be bound.  He postponed court proceedings and special master’s hearings stating he had agreed to a settlement. …

 

Himelright, supra at 487-488.

 

We believe the same is true here as the conduct of both parties indicates their intent to be bound by the terms of their agreement, including the agreement regarding spousal support, alimony pendent lite, alimony and child support.  Wife admitted that she had agreed not to seek support or alimony.  She honored that agreement throughout the duration of the period when the parties’ attorneys were working toward a written agreement.  This portion of the parties’ agreement remained the same and was never questioned or objected to in any of the communications between the parties’ attorneys prior to the twins’ emancipation.

In accordance with the agreement, Husband pursued refinancing of the marital home, obtained an actuary to value Wife’s retirement account, and provided information regarding his own retirement accounts.  Husband never filed for child support and continued to provide for the needs of the parties’ children.  The parties went forward with obtaining an appraisal of the marital home.  It was only after the twins were emancipated and Husband would no longer be entitled to seek child support from Wife that Wife decided she wanted to “address alimony.”  At the hearing, Wife indicated that she still agreed that the terms had been agreed to by the parties, but that she decided to pursue her claims for alimony pendent lite and alimony due to her financial condition.

We believe this evidence established that the parties had come to a final agreement on the essential terms of their divorce settlement – the 50/50 split, Husband’s agreement not to seek child support, Wife’s agreement not to seek support, alimony pendent lite, or alimony, and Husband’s option to refinance or the sale of the marital home – and that they intended to be bound to these terms.

At the hearing, Wife stated that she believe that Husband’s requested change regarding the dependency deductions for the children was a substantial change to their agreement.  However, it does not appear that the parties considered this change to be a major issue or as having any effect on their agreement on the essential terms noted above.  In her communication of November 25, 2020, Husband’s counsel offered that the issue of the dependency deductions could be revisited once Husband no longer had custody of the children (Exhibit “3”) and Wife offered no evidence that  that the provision regarding the dependency deductions had any impact on her agreement to forego support, alimony pendent lite and alimony.  The fact that negotiations were ongoing with regard to this incidental detail does not excuse Wife’s failure to adhere to her original agreement.

 

We believe that claims for alimony and alimony pendent lite under the Divorce Code may be waived by agreement where the agreement has been acted upon by the parties or where enforcement of the agreement will not create an unjust result.  See, 24A Standard Pennsylvania Practice 2d §126:646.  We must admit, however, that we do have reservations regarding the enforcement of this agreement since it involves the children’s right to child support:

The right to support is a right of the child, not the mother or father because this is a property right of the child arising from the parent-child relationship. Parties to a divorce action may bargain between themselves and structure their agreement as best serves their interests; they have no power, however, to bargain away the rights of their children. Thus, contracts between husband and wife, if fairly made, are generally considered binding as to them, although legally ineffective to oust the jurisdiction of the court in a child support action. A child’s right to adequate support cannot be bargained away by either parent and any release or compromise is invalid to the extent it prejudices a child’s welfare.

 

15A Summary Pennsylvania Jurisprudence 2d Family Law §11:47 (2d ed.).

In Sonnon v. Sonnon, No. 2017-5-0880, Slip Opinion, Charles, J., (Leb. Cnty. October 19, 2020), another jurist of this Court highlighted the problematic nature of such agreements when faced with a situation where the parties had agreed not to seek modification of a child support order.  In that case, an order for support of the parties’ two children had been entered against the mother.  When the parties modified their custody arrangement to give the mother greater periods of time with the children, she sought modification.  The father challenged the modification based on the parties’ stipulation.  In its extensive discussion on this issue, the Court recognized that support courts are not bound by agreements of this type and noted the existence of caselaw suggesting an examination of (1) whether the amount agreed upon was fair and reasonable, (2) whether the agreement was entered without fraud or coercion, and (3) whether the agreement prejudiced the welfare of the children in determining their enforceability.  Id. at p. 4.   The Court refrained from issuing a declaration that all such agreements were void as  contrary to public policy, recognizing that “[a]ffording one parent with the ability to receive the benefit of his/her bargain while taking away the ability of the other parent to enforce a support clause can, in some cases, create injustice,” Id. at 5.  The Court ultimately decided that, given the circumstances, the DRM had inappropriately relied on the parties’ agreement in denying modification and remanded for an analysis of the parties’ revised custody arrangement in light of the support guidelines.

Despite these reservations and our desire not to encourage agreements of this nature, we cannot ignore the facts that Husband relied on the agreement by not seeking child support when he could have done so, that the time for pursuing this right on behalf of the children has passed, and that we are beyond the point where an evaluation of the agreement may be conducted.   However, we note that there was no evidence presented that the children were not sufficiently provided for prior to their emancipation, that Wife entered the agreement based on fraud or coercion, or that it was unfair or unreasonable based on the parties’ relative financial situations.  This is a difficult situation and we believe that under these circumstances, the fairest approach is to direct enforcement.

In his Petition, Husband asks us to award attorney’s fees related to the filing of his Petition to enforce the parties’ agreement.  We will deny this request as we believe that a resolution of this matter was dependent on a judicial assessment of the factual circumstances of the parties’ dealings.

For these reasons, we will grant Husband’s Petition for Special Relief and enter an appropriate Order.

 

 

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