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Pending dissolution settlement not enforceable upon a party's death

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A property-settlement document is not an enforceable contract if one of the parties dies before the dissolution action is finalized, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In Dwight Murdock v. Estate of Sharron K. Murdock, No. 45A03-0912-CV-585, Dwight Murdock appealed an interlocutory order from Lake Superior Court’s Probate Division that declared the property-settlement document in his dissolution action created an enforceable contract. The dissolution action between Dwight and Sharron Murdock was pending when Sharron died.

Before her death, Dwight had signed a drafted settlement, and attorneys for Dwight and Sharron had signed under “approved as to form.” Sharron via telephone told her attorney she intended to sign but she did not before her death examine or sign the document, and therefore the dissolution court also did not sign the agreement.

Dwight initially was appointed personal representative of Sharron’s estate, but two of their five children successfully petitioned for his removal, arguing he was not an “interested person” because he forfeited his rights based on probate statutes Ind. Code § 29-1-2-14 and Ind. Code § 29-1-2-15 addressing adultery and spousal abandonment. The two children were then appointed co-representatives of their mother’s estate.

During a hearing before the probate court, the daughters argued the property-settlement document was an enforceable contract and Dwight argued it was now null. The estate asked the probate court to use the property-settlement document as a “template” based of the “intent” of Sharron and Dwight.

Also at the hearing, Sharron’s attorney testified that Sharron had expressed her intention to sign the settlement, and the court admitted into evidence the attorney’s affidavit expressing the attorney’s “professional opinion that the property settlement document ‘was to become effective upon its execution, and was not contingent on any Court approval.’”

The probate court found the document was enforceable, found the issue of abandonment moot, and reserved final judgment regarding whether Dwight had forfeited the right to inherit from Sharron’s estate. Dwight then filed an interlocutory appeal, arguing the probate court effectively required him to “deliver property and execute documents.”

Appellate Judge L. Mark Bailey cited Bailey v. Mann, 895 N.E.2d 1215, 1217 (Ind. 2008), that noted settlement agreements become binding when incorporated into a dissolution decree, and in this case, no such decree would be forthcoming.

The court also cited Johnson v. Johnson, 653 N.E.2d 512, 516 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995), noting that dissolution proceedings, including property settlements, terminate upon the death of one of the parties.

The court noted the settlement document was silent regarding its operation in the event of one of the party’s deaths. It was drafted in contemplation of a dissolution and that would not occur upon Sharron’s death.

Judge Bailey wrote, “… an attempt to enforce the provisions of the property settlement document – which had neither been fully executed nor adopted by the dissolution court – based upon a determination of 'intent' would contravene our Indiana Supreme Court’s directive that marital property settlement agreements become binding when incorporated into the dissolution decree. See Bailey, 895 N.E.2d at 1217.”
 

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  1. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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