ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS OF THE CONSENT TO DIVORCE
May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments
Kenton McNeese filed a pro se appeal raising the issue, among numerous others, whether the consent for an irreconcilable differences that he and his wife, Katye, had executed and presented to the trial court for adjudication was valid or not. He took the position that it was invalid, thereby depriving the chancellor of authority to grant the divorce. His appeal raised two issues for the MSSC to address regarding validity of the consent:
- Whether or not the consent was in compliance with the statute; and
- Whether the chancellor properly overruled Kenton’s motion to “expunge” or withdraw his consent.
In the case of McNeese v. McNeese, handed down April 25, 2013, Justice Coleman, writing for a unanimous court, summed it up about as well as it can be said:
¶13. Kenton claims that the parties’ consent agreement to an irreconcilable differences divorce was invalid because it was not properly notarized and because the agreement was not signed by counsel. On that basis, he argues the chancellor erred in granting the divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Katye claims that the consent agreement is not subject to appellate review, but if this Court reviews it, it met the statutory requirements for validity.
¶14. Mississippi Code Section 93-5-2 pertains to consent agreements for irreconcilable differences divorces and provides the following:
(3) If the parties are unable to agree upon adequate and sufficient provisions for the custody and maintenance of any children of that marriage or any property rights between them, they may consent to a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences and permit the court to decide the issues upon which they cannot agree. Such consent must be in writing, signed by both parties personally, must state that the parties voluntarily consent to permit the court to decide such issues, which shall be specifically set forth in such consent, and that the parties understand that the decision of the court shall be a binding and lawful judgment. Such consent may not be withdrawn by a party without leave of the court after the court has commenced any proceeding, including the hearing of any motion or other matter pertaining thereto. . . .
Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(3) (Rev. 2004). According to Section 93-5-2, a consent agreement for an irreconcilable differences divorce must (1) be in writing, (2) be signed by both parties, (3) state that the parties voluntarily consent to have the court decide issues upon which they cannot agree, (4) specifically set forth those issues upon which the parties cannot agree, and (5) state that the parties understand that the court’s decision will be binding. Id. See also Cassibry v. Cassibry, 742 So. 2d 1121, 1124 (¶ 9) (Miss. 1999). The consent agreement in question was in writing, signed by both parties, and contained the required statements that the parties voluntarily consented to have the court determine the issues listed therein and that the parties understood that the court’s decision would be a “binding and lawful judgment.” Kenton’s claim that the document is invalid because it was not notarized properly [FN1] and not signed by the attorneys is without merit, because Section 93-5-2 does not require the consent agreement to be notarized or signed by an attorney.
[FN1] Regardless, the notary and seal used were sufficient, because chancery clerks are by statute ex-offico notaries public and are permitted to use the seal of their office to notarize documents. Miss. Code Ann. § 25-33-17 (Rev. 2010).
¶15. Kenton asserts that the attorneys were required to sign the consent agreement in accordance with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11(a) and Uniform Chancery Court Rule 5.03. Rule 11(a) applies to motions and pleadings and requires the signature of the attorney filing the document. Miss. R. Civ. P. 11(a). Rule 5.03 requires counsel for all parties to approve and sign a “consent judgment” before presenting it to the chancellor. [Fn2] Unif. Chancery Court R. 5.03. The consent agreement at issue is not a motion, pleading, or a consent judgment; therefore, the rules Kenton cited are not applicable, and an attorney’s signature was not required. The consent agreement complied with the requirements of Section 93-5-2 and was valid.
[Fn2] A consent judgment is a final judgment, more like an agreed order, which “must be approved and signed by counsel for all parties . . . before being presented to the Chancellor for his signature.” Unif. Chancery Court R. 5.03. A consent agreement is like a stipulation of facts, by which the parties indicate how they wish to proceed on certain issues, but leave other issues to the chancellor and await his final judgment.
¶16. If Kenton wanted to withdraw or expunge the agreement, according to Section 93-5-2(3), he was required to obtain leave of court to do so. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(3) (Rev. 2004). See also McDuffie v. McDuffie, 21 So. 3d 685, 689 (¶ 7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). The agreement itself also included language requiring the parties to obtain leave of court to withdraw the agreement. Kenton did not file a motion for leave of court as required; he waited until after the amended final judgment had been entered to file a motion to expunge the consent agreement. Kenton’s attempt to withdraw or expunge the consent agreement after the divorce decree had been entered did not invalidate the agreement. See Jernigan v. Young, 61 So. 3d 233, 236 (¶ 14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “[W]avering on whether a divorce should be entered may often occur and does not invalidate the divorce. . . . What is important is that agreement be validly expressed on the day that the chancellor is considering the issue.” Id. (quoting Sanford v. Sanford, 749 So. 2d 353, 356 (¶ 11) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)). The chancellor did not err in granting the divorce on irreconcilable differences because the consent agreement was valid on the day the order of divorce was entered.
It might be a good idea to look over the form you’ve been using for ID divorce consents to make sure it includes all of the required elements. Just because you’ve used it a hundred times does not mean that it complies with the statute.
Why is it important to be in line with the staturte? Well, there has been a trend over the past few years where people agree to one thing in court and then, either on their own or with the aid of new counsel, attack their very agreement through a barrage of post-trial motions and on appeal, picking at every conceivable legal nit in an effort to have the agreement declared invalid. You wouldn’t want that to cause the demise of a case you thought had been settled and done.