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Court Denies Attempt to Re-Open a Rhode Island Divorce Settlement

Long after two parties have reached a divorce settlement, one party may discover marital assets that other party failed to disclose during the settlement process. When a person actively conceals a marital asset, their ex-spouse may seek a new settlement equitably dividing the asset between the parties. Those seeking to re-open a final divorce settlement in Rhode Island should know that the state may bar actions filed beyond a certain time period after the settlement. This time limit is known as the statute of limitations.

When Can a Party Re-Open a Rhode Island Divorce Case?

Rhode Island requires parties to bring an action challenging a judgment or contract under seal, including final divorce settlements, within 20 years of the final judgment or contract. Courts have recognized a few exceptions to statutes of limitations, primarily when extending the time limit would be the most fair and equitable action to take. However, a defendant can also ask courts to bar a legal claim under the doctrine of laches. If the defendant succeeds, the court may prohibit a plaintiff from bringing a claim if the (1) plaintiff could have acted earlier and fails to justify the delay, and (2) the defendant has suffered damage from the delay.

For example, the Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reversed a lower court decision under the statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches. As the ruling explained, the parties were married in 1975 and initiated divorce proceedings in 1992. Both parties signed a property settlement agreement that distributed their marital home along with medical and life insurance coverage. Absent from the settlement, however, was any mention of the husband’s pension. In 2017, 24 years after the settlement took effect, the wife filed a motion for post-judgment relief seeking one-half interest of the marital portion of her ex-husband’s pension. She claimed that her ex-husband concealed the pension by not informing the wife or her counsel of its existence at the time of their divorce. A trial judge agreed, holding that the statute of limitations or laches did not bar the wife’s claim because she did not learn about the pension until 2017.

On appeal, the state’s high court reversed, holding that the 20-year statute of limitations barred the wife’s suit. Since the wife brought her motion 24 years after the settlement, she could no longer claim an interest in her ex-husband’s pension. Additionally, even if the wife did not know about the pension at the time of the divorce, she had ample opportunity within the 20-year period to discover what marital assets existed and seek an equitable distribution in court. Furthermore, the court declined to extend the statute of limitations for reasons of fairness or equity because it found the ex-husband did not actively conceal his pension. Rather, the court explained that “mere silence or inaction” did not amount to misrepresentation sufficient to extend the wife’s deadline to re-open the settlement. Because the statute of limitations clearly barred the wife’s suit, the court did not need to address the doctrine of laches. Ultimately, the supreme court vacated the family court’s order awarding a share of the husband’s pension to the wife.

Contact an Experienced Rhode Island Divorce Attorney

If you are going through a divorce or seeking to re-open a divorce settlement, it is crucial to have a skilled Rhode Island divorce attorney by your side. While the law may seem clear on its face, judges have broad discretion in applying the law to the facts of your case. The dedicated family law and divorce attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo have years of experience representing clients in the Rhode Island court system. Our attorneys understand the complicated divorce laws in Rhode Island and will help you secure the settlement you deserve. To discuss your case with a qualified Rhode Island family law attorney, call our offices at 401-300-4055.

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