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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. If real money was spent on this study, what a shame. And if some air-head professor tries to use this to advance a career, pity the poor student. I am approaching a time that i (and others around me) should be vigilant. I don't think I'm anywhere near there yet, but seeing the subject I was looking forward to something I might use to look for some benchmarks. When finally finding my way to the hidden questionnaire all I could say to myself was...what a joke. Those are open and obvious signs of any impaired lawyer (or non-lawyer, for that matter), And if one needs a checklist to discern those tell-tale signs of impairment at any age, one shouldn't be practicing law. Another reason I don't regret dropping my ABA membership some number of years ago.

  2. The case should have been spiked. Give the kid a break. He can serve and maybe die for Uncle Sam and can't have a drink? Wow. And they won't even let him defend himself. What a gross lack of prosecutorial oversight and judgment. WOW

  3. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

  4. YES I WENT THROUGH THIS BEFORE IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION WITH MY YOUNGEST SON PEOPLE NEED TO LEAVE US ALONE WITH DCS IF WE ARE NOT HURTING OR NEGLECT OUR CHILDREN WHY ARE THEY EVEN CALLED OUT AND THE PEOPLE MAKING FALSE REPORTS NEED TO GO TO JAIL AND HAVE A CLASS D FELONY ON THERE RECORD TO SEE HOW IT FEELS. I WENT THREW ALOT WHEN HE WAS TAKEN WHAT ELSE DOES THESE SCHOOL WANT ME TO SERVE 25 YEARS TO LIFE ON LIES THERE TELLING OR EVEN LE SAME THING LIED TO THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR JUST SO I WOULD GET ARRESTED AND GET TIME HE THOUGHT AND IT TURNED OUT I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO NOT PROUD OF WHAT HAPPEN AND SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR MY CHILD I AM DISABLED AND SICK OF GETTING TREATED BADLY HOW WOULD THEY LIKE IT IF I CALLED APS ON THEM FOR A CHANGE THEN THEY CAN COME AND ARREST THEM RIGHT OUT OF THE SCHOOL. NOW WE ARE HOMELESS AND THE CHILDREN ARE STAYING WITH A RELATIVE AND GUARDIAN AND THE SCHOOL WON'T LET THEM GO TO SCHOOL THERE BUT WANT THEM TO GO TO SCHOOL WHERE BULLYING IS ALLOWED REAL SMART THINKING ON A SCHOOL STAFF.

  5. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

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