California Court Erred by Exceeding Spouse’s Request for Relief in Divorce-Related Action

courthouse-1204573.jpgOne way to reduce the length of a divorce proceeding is for the parties to resolve most of the significant issues through a marital settlement agreement. While this may not always be feasible, spouses will benefit from having a certain amount of control over the fate of the process. Of course, a judge will have to sign off on any resulting agreement. In some cases, however, one party or the other may seek to challenge, clarify, or enforce the settlement agreement in the future. To ensure that your marital settlement agreement complies with local applicable law and will stand up in court, you are encouraged to consult with an experienced San Diego family law attorney as early in the divorce as possible.

Martial settlement agreements may cover a myriad of issues. For example, in a recent case, the couple’s marital “termination” agreement (as it was called in 1987) required the husband to establish a life insurance trust for his soon-to-be ex-wife. Here, the parties were married in 1957 and divorced in 1987. The couple entered into this marital termination agreement, which was approved by the court at that time. In 2013, the wife filed a request with the court seeking an “Order to Disclose Insurance Information.” Essentially, it seems that the wife was hoping to obtain proof that the husband established a life insurance trust for her in accordance with the termination agreement.

During the hearing, the court “construed” the wife’s request as a motion to enforce the agreement and required the husband to establish a trust for the wife in the amount of $126,916 (among other things). The husband appealed, arguing that his due process rights were violated because the court’s orders exceeded the relief sought by his ex-wife and by doing so, failed to provide him with adequate notice of the relief awarded. He further claimed that the court did not have the authority to modify a judgment that was non-modifiable under its terms.

The court of appeals agreed with the husband and reversed the decision, pointing out that the judge’s orders went beyond the wife’s “simple request for disclosure of an insurance policy.” The court first reviewed the husband’s main argument that he was denied due process by not being properly notified of the issues to be decided. The husband failed to attend the hearing and, according to the court, had no way of knowing that the wife’s straightforward request for information would result in a modification of the MTA, impose additional terms not included in the original judgment, and order him to create and fund a trust instrument for more than $126,000.

Additionally, under Section 580 of the State Code, parties to a marital dissolution proceeding are entitled to have adequate notice of the lawsuit and the specific relief sought. Ultimately, the court concluded that the trial court erred in treating the wife’s request for an order to disclose insurance information as proof that the policy in fact existed, treat it as notice that the court would take the matter under submission, and issue an order requiring the husband to establish and fund a trust.

This case is a good illustration of the broad range of divorce disputes that arise in California courts – and the importance of understanding the extent of a court’s reach in any family law case. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing clients in divorce matters in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt & Forney through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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