Wording of Stipulated Divorce Judgment Didn’t Allow California Husband to Alter Child and Spousal Support Obligations

One way to resolve your divorce case is to agree to a stipulated judgment of dissolution. You should be very cautious about agreeing to a stipulated judgment without consulting counsel first, however, since doing so may involve your surrendering certain rights you might otherwise have. In a recent case originating in Orange County, that’s exactly what happened. In the Fourth District Court of Appeal‘s ruling, the husband could not pursue a termination of his spousal support, even though the statutes allow for cessation after a recipient spouse remarries, since he had contracted to continue paying even if his ex-wife remarried.

The couple involved in the case was Richard Cohen and Lauralin Anderson Cohen. In 2006, after 16 years of marriage, the pair separated, and the wife filed for divorce. The Cohens reached an agreement on a stipulated divorce judgment in March 2011. The judgment called for the husband, who was an extremely well-paid fashion executive, to pay child support for the couple’s four children of $17,000 per month, which was was well in excess of the applicable child support guidelines. The stipulated judgment also said that, if either party wanted to ask a court to modify support in the future, the issue “shall be reviewed de novo” by that future judge.

The judgment also addressed spousal support, with the husband paying the wife $19,000 per month. That support contained a provision that called for an elimination of the support if the wife married someone making more than $400,000 per year, or a reduction if she married someone making less than $400,000. While the original judgment called for a complete termination of spousal support if the wife remarried within 24 months, the couple altered that number to 18 months.

Eventually, the husband came back to court seeking to modify this arrangement. His income had declined, and the wife had remarried in October 2012. Based on these things, he argued that he was entitled to a reduction in child support and an elimination of his spousal support obligation. The trial court ruled against the husband on both claims, and he appealed.

The appeal was also unsuccessful. The spousal support provision was enforceable, even though it did not mention Section 4337 of the Family Code. The court, in ruling against the husband, rejected the decision issued in a 2002 case, Marriage of Thornton. Section 4337 does not, the court stated, require spouses who seek to contract for a continuation of support even after remarriage to include any “magic words” expressly waiving the termination-upon-remarriage provision of that statute. Allowing the husband to use the statute in that way would “function as a kind of ‘king’s X’ to contradict the plain intent of the clause” and evade the obligation for which he had clearly contracted.

The appeals court also rejected the husband’s argument that the trial court should have honored the “reviewed de novo” language of the stipulated judgment. The court concluded that the law does not allow spouses, even through stipulated judgments and the right to contract, to do an end-run around the legal requirement of showing a change of circumstances before pursuing a modification of support. Allowing a spouse to contract around this obligation would potentially upset one of the most basic concepts of litigation — the idea that a final order is final and may not be relitigated. The position advocated by this husband “would reduce family law orders and judgments to mere temporary placeholders.”

Before you decide to enter into a stipulated judgment in your divorce, you should consult with skilled legal counsel who can advise you thoroughly about your rights, as well as the benefits and risks of agreeing or litigating. Once you’ve signed the agreement, your options may be much more limited. The diligent San Diego divorce attorneys at Doppelt and Forney, APLC  have helped clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years and have the experience and knowledge to aid you in your family law case. For a free consultation about your divorce, reach out to Doppelt and Forney, APLC through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

More blog posts:

California Court Underscores Mandatory Guidelines in Determining Spousal Support, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, June 14, 2016

California Court Upholds Modification of Spousal Support, Cites Family Code Factors, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 2, 2016

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