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In Rhode Island, A Separation Agreement Not Merged Into A Divorce Judgment Retains The Characteristics Of A Contract

In 1991, the Rhode Island Supreme Court decided two important issues regarding alimony in Rhode Island divorce cases: (1) whether a family court can modify alimony obligations prescribed by a separation agreement, where the agreement has been incorporated by reference but not merged into a final judgment; and (2) whether the alimony under the judgment is modifiable despite the fact that the agreement’s alimony is nonmodifiable.

Plaintiff and Defendant were married in 1959 and decided to divorce in 1985. They agreed on the the distribution of the marital property and on their respective alimony obligations.

The parties obtained a final divorce judgment from the family court in June 1985. In paragraph 6 of the judgment, the family court found the agreement to be fair and equitable. The family court therefore incorporated by reference, but explicitly did not merge, the agreement into the judgment.

In October 1988, the defendant filed a motion for modification of final judgment, to modify his alimony obligations under the final judgment. The plaintiff objected to the defendant’s motion, arguing that the family court could not modify a settlement agreement that is incorporated but not merged into a final divorce judgment. In an order, the family court retroactively modified paragraph 7 of the judgment and paragraph 5 of the agreement. The court further ordered that the defendant’s obligation under paragraphs 7 and 5 of the judgment and the agreement were suspended.

The plaintiff filed for certiorari, making three arguments. First, the family court erroneously construed the defendant’s motion for modification of the final judgment as including a motion to modify. Second, any modification had to be made under contract principles, not the alimony law, because the agreement was not merged into the judgment. Third,  the family court failed to properly apply the Bocchino v. Bocchino (1983) standard for modification of alimony under paragraph 7 of the judgment.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff that it was unclear whether the defendant’s motion to modify sought to modify paragraph 7 of the judgment alone, or also paragraph 5 of the agreement. The court then turned to whether the family court could modify a separation agreement which was incorporated but not merged into a final judgment.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a separation agreement that is not merged into a divorce judgment remains a contract; thus, the family court could not modify alimony in a nonmerged separation agreement. The court explained that it was adhering to centuries of contract theory that the modification of contracts can only be accomplished by the contracting parties.

The state high court next rejected the parties’ premise that the modifiability of the judgment was an independent question from the modifiability of the agreement. The court ruled that where the same subject matter is treated both in a divorce judgment and in a nonmerged separation agreement, the terms as stated in the separation agreement shall be binding and the divorce judgment is not enforceable or modifiable. However, if the judgment explicitly states that the judgment’s treatment of the matter shall have independent validity from the separation agreement, then the judgment shall have such independent validity and can be enforced or modified like the other terms of the judgment.

In the instant case, the court held that the divorce judgment did not have an explicit manifestation of intent that the judgment’s alimony would have independent validity from the agreement’s alimony. Therefore, the court ruled that alimony under the judgment was not modifiable or enforceable.

The court quashed the family court decision with respect to the modification of alimony under both the agreement and the judgment. The papers of the case were remanded to the family court for further proceedings.

At Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, our caring divorce attorneys are ready to help Rhode Island residents handle their family law issues. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule your consultation today.

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