It’s Not Advisable To Represent Yourself Without Counsel In A Tennessee Divorce

Representing yourself without counsel in any court proceeding is not advisable and can turnout to beDivorce Contract Marital Dissolution Agreement disastrous. And, as the following divorce case reveals, alleging ambiguous language in a contract like a marital dissolution agreement as a defense for not following the court’s ruling is not something Tennessee courts look upon with favor.

The facts of Paulette E. Dukes v. James F. Dukes are as follows: Paulette (Wife) and James (Husband) were married for 25 years and divorced on October 6, 2009. They had no children together, and at the time of the divorce, Wife was in her early 60s, while Husband was 76. The divorce was uncontested, and the parties represented themselves in the proceedings. In drafting the Marital Dissolution Agreement, they used a fill in the blank form which had been obtained from Southeast Tennessee Legal Services. The document contained a section titled “Debts to Be Paid by Husband” which stated:

The husband shall pay the debts set forth below:

Pay car note on 2004 Toyota until paid in full. Provide and pay for spouses future Health Insurance and pay it through electronic pay or autopay. To be responsible for future household bills and expenses until Oct 1, 2009. To pay future Life Insurance and leave and leave [sic] both Beneficiaries as is.

From the date of the entry of the final decree until early 2014, Husband paid the monthly premiums on two life insurance policies, one on his life that listed Wife as beneficiary, and the other on her life that listed him as beneficiary. Husband remarried in October 2013. In December 2013 or January 2014, Husband noticed that the premiums on the insurance policy on his life had increased significantly to $681 per month so Husband subsequently canceled the policy. After doing so, he notified Wife of the cancellation.

On March 4, 2014, Wife filed a Petition for Contempt. On March 25, the court held a hearing at which Husband, then 80 years old, and his current wife testified. The court held Husband in civil contempt and ordered him to obtain a $50,000 life insurance policy to replace the one he had cancelled payable to Wife within 60 days. In the event he could not obtain such a policy, the court entered a $50,000 judgment against Husband secured by a lien on his property, and ordered him to pay $500 per month into the court as installment payments on the judgment.

Husband appealed to The Court Of Appeals At Nashville disputing the trial court’s order requiring him to obtain a $50,000 life insurance policy or make payments pursuant to a $50,000 judgement secured by a lien on his property.

Husband did not contest that the final decree was lawful or that he violated the order when he canceled the policy. He contends that the language in the MDA  “to pay future Life Insurance and leave and leave both Beneficiaries as is” was ambiguous and could not support a finding of contempt.

After hearing oral arguments and reviewing the record, the Appellate Court concluded the following:

A person may not be held in civil contempt for violating an order unless the order expressly and precisely spells out the details of compliance in a way that will enable reasonable persons to know exactly what actions are required or forbidden. Orders alleged to have been violated should be construed using an objective standard that takes into account both the language of the order and the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the order, including the audience to whom the order is addressed.

Pursuant to the MDA, Husband paid the premiums for more than four years without issue and cancelled the policy only when the premiums increased; this is conduct which is inconsistent with his argument that the provision is ambiguous. Further, at no time prior to his decision to cancel the policy did he seek clarification or modification of the MDA or relief from this obligation. In light of Husband‘s acknowledgement at the hearing that he was obligated to pay the premiums on the policy which was to be ―paid out to [Wife],‖ and his actions consistent with that understanding from 2009 until 2014, it is clear that he understood what the order required of him. The record supports the conclusion that the order was not ambiguous.

Accordingly, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case to the trial court for the purposes of clarifying that the judgment and judgment lien would dissolve in the event Husband obtains a $50,000 life insurance policy naming Wife as beneficiary and payable in the event he predeceased her.

If you are in the process of beginning a divorce, you should never represent yourself no matter how straight forward you think your case may be. You should always seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact Donna Wagner to schedule your consultation.

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