The Not-so-Illusory Agreement

January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

It has long been the law in Mississippi that parties effect extra-judicial modifications at their peril, and that chancery courts are neither designed or equipped to enforce such agreements.

Only last September we read here about Donald Brewer and Penny Holliday, who had agreed to modify their divorce judgment vis a vis custody and support. They had lawyers incorporate their agreement into an agreed judgment, and they proceeded to conform to the agreement in nearly every respect for several years. Only problem is, no one ever saw to it that the agreed judgment was entered. Both Donald and Penny believed that it had been entered. When the parties had a falling out and wound up back in court, the chancellor refused to enforce the agreement, notwithstanding the course of compliance, and found Donald in contempt. The COA affirmed, as you can read in the previous post.

Donald in due course persuaded the MSSC to take another look, and in Brewer v. Holliday, decided by the MSSC on January 9, 2013, the high court reversed. Justice Dickinson’s opinion states, in part:

¶14. This Court has recognized that, at times, equity may “suggest ex post facto approval of extra-judicial adjustments in the manner and form in which support payments have been made.” [citation omitted] For instance, in Alexander v. Alexander, this Court held that equity required crediting a father for payments of child support made directly to the child – once the child moved in with him – instead of to the mother. [citation omitted] And in Varner v. Varner, we explained that “the father may receive credit for having paid child support where, in fact, he paid the support directly to or for the benefit of the child, where to hold otherwise would unjustly enrich the mother.” [citation omitted] Noncustodial parents pay child support to custodial parents for the benefit of the child, not the parent, [citation omitted] and that support belongs to the child, not the custodial parent. [citation omitted]

[Note: read the opinion at the link for the case citations. Copying and pasting numerous footnotes is too cumbersome for this blog]

The court went on to remand the case for the chancellor to consider the fact that the child resided with Donald, à la Varner, finding that the arrangement should have been taken into account by the judge at the original hearing.

There is no airtight rule against enforcement of extra-judicial modifications. Each case must be considered on its own merits, and the equities must be weighed. Here, the high court considered that it would be best for Donald’s equities to be taken into account, rather than closing the door on enforcement of the agreement. No doubt the parties’ ignorance of the fact that the judgment had never been entered, coupled with their compliance with it for a time, had persuasive weight in this particular case.

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