The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously held that a trial court had no authority to modify a property agreement made by ex-spouses and that the ex-wife is entitled by law to refuse to waive a provision that neither party had to accept a sale that was below specified minimums.
When Sean and Dee Anna Ryan divorced in 2008, they agreed to sell a property they had in Granger and a lake house in Michigan. Until the properties sold, Sean Ryan would pay 75 percent of the mortgages; Dee Anna Ryan would pay the remainder. In the agreement, the two could “bind” each other to accept a purchase price as long as the “resulting net proceeds” equaled at least $1.1 million on the Granger house and at least $300,000 on the lake house.
For two years, the properties hadn’t sold, so Sean Ryan sought a motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(8) so that the court could order that the properties will be sold at the prevailing fair market value and he could accept a price lower than stated in the agreement without his ex-wife’s consent.
The trial court denied the request, but the Court of Appeals ordered the court to hold an evidentiary hearing on the motion.
The justices agreed with the trial court that it didn’t have authority to modify the property-distribution agreement without Dee Anna Ryan’s consent. The agreement was incorporated and merged into the divorce decree and did not provide for, nor did the parties consent to, modification, Justice Frank Sullivan wrote.
A court can have authority to resolve a dispute over the interpretation of a settlement agreement or property-division order, he noted, and the court’s task would be one of contract interpretation.
In the instant case, the justices found that the Ryans’ agreement as to the disposition of their properties is unambiguous. As a matter of contract law, Dee Anna is bound to agree to the sales prices for the properties that would produce net proceeds less than those stated in the agreement.
“We conclude by saying that, in writing this opinion, we have been struck by the recurrence of several fact patterns that have been avoidably problematic – the use of specific dollar amounts rather than percentages, the failure of a QDRO’s terms to conform to ERISA requirements, the failure to provide a contingency if the marital residence cannot be sold – and trust that practitioners and judges alike will contemplate them in their work as well,” Sullivan wrote.