Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Simpson v. Simpson[1]

Opinion handed down October 4, 2011
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

Mr. Simpson (Husband) appealed the dismissal of his motion to terminate maintenance arguing that the statutory presumption created by Revised Statutes of Missouri § 452.370, that maintenance terminates upon remarriage of the recipient, was not overcome by the written agreement between him and his wife (Wife), because it did not expressly waive the presumption. The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed, holding that the express language is unnecessary so long as the writing between the parties extends the obligation, expressly or by implication.

I. Facts and Holding

Husband and Wife were married in 1981 and filed for divorce in 2004.[2] As part of the settlement terms of the divorce, Husband agreed to pay Wife an unmodifiable monthly maintenance in the amount of $12,000 for a period of fifteen years, and “shall terminate prior to the expiration of said 15 year period only in the event of the death of either party.”[3] In 2009, the Wife remarried and the Husband filed a motion requesting that the trial court terminate his obligation to pay Wife maintenance.[4] The trial court dismissed the Husband’s motion, finding that the agreement entered into by the parties provided that it would terminate either at the conclusion of fifteen years or in the event that one of the parties died.[5] The Husband appealed.[6]

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, Husband asserted that the trial court erroneously declared or applied Revised Statutes of Missouri § 452.370, which states that maintenance shall terminate upon the remarriage of the recipient.[7] Husband maintained that according to the court’s ruling in Glenn v. Snider, § 452.370 is controlling when neither the court decree nor the separation agreement specifically address the effect of remarriage.[8] Husband further argued that under Cates v. Cates, the statute creates a presumption that maintenance terminates upon remarriage unless the written agreement expressly states otherwise.[9] Because the written separation agreement between Husband and Wife was silent on the issue of maintenance following remarriage, Husband argued that it does not overcome the statutory presumption.[10]

The court disagreed with Husband’s argument, finding that the separation agreement was not silent because it specifically stated that maintenance would terminate "only in the event of the death of either party."[11] The court reasoned that a careful drafter “would use the word ‘only’ in the separation agreement to limit the number of events that would terminate Husband's maintenance obligation to either his death or Wife's death,” and that the word only “excludes all other possible terminating events including Wife's remarriage.”[12] Therefore, the wording used in the separation agreement was sufficient to overcome the statutory presumption of § 452.370.[13]

Relying upon the Missouri Court of Appeals holding in In re Estate of Mackie, Husband insisted that the word ‘only’ was insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption because neither the separation agreement nor the dissolution decree expressly waived the presumption.[14] While the Supreme Court of Missouri found that the use of the word ‘only’ clarified the separation agreement, the court was troubled by the Mackie court’s analysis and interpretation of section 452.370 and Cates.[15] The court determined that § 452.370 provided two clear means by which the statutory presumption can be overcome: by agreement in writing or by an express judgment by the trial court.[16] The court went on to state that the Mackie court had failed to properly interpret the statute by applying the word ‘expressly’ to both methods of overcoming the statutory presumption when it should only apply to a judgment by the trial court.[17] Furthermore, the court noted that in Cates, it examined the agreement between the parties for any language that "expressly or by implication extends the obligation."[18] In closing, the court held that the “presumption that an obligation to pay maintenance is terminated by remarriage of the party receiving maintenance can be overcome by an agreement in writing between the parties that either expressly or by implication extends said obligation,” and that Mackie and other appellate holdings should no longer be followed to the degree that they conflict with this holding.[19]

II. Legal Background

Revised Statutes of Missouri § 452.370, provides that "[u]nless otherwise agreed in writing or expressly provided in the judgment, the obligation to pay future statutory maintenance is terminated upon the death of either party or the remarriage of the party receiving maintenance."[20]

In Glenn v. Snider the Supreme Court of Missouri stated that Revised Statutes of Missouri § 452.370 will control when neither the decree nor the separation agreement in a particular case addresses the effect of remarriage.[21]

The Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision in Cates v. Cates requires courts to "determine the continued obligation of the paying party to pay maintenance following remarriage or death upon the language (or silence) of the separation agreement or the court's decree."[22] The court also stated that "[g]iven the unambiguous language of [what is now § 452.370.3], it is difficult to imagine that the careful drafter would fail to state the intent of the parties when failure to do so results in termination of maintenance."[23]

In In re Estate of Mackie, the former wife of decedent filed a claim against decedent's estate seeking maintenance payments pursuant to a prior marital dissolution judgment.[24] The estate argued that the duty to pay maintenance terminated upon the death of the decedent because the language of the judgment did not overcome the statutory presumption of § 452.370.[25] The Missouri Court of Appeals stated that "[t]o rebut the presumption of termination, the parties must clearly and expressly agree in writing or the court's dissolution decree must expressly state that the obligation to pay future statutory maintenance extends beyond the death of either party."[26] The court determined that the statement in the separation agreement that "Wife shall receive the following as non-modifiable maintenance payments during her lifetime . . .” was insufficient to overcome the presumption of § 452.370.[27] The court held that because the separation agreement at issue did not expressly waive the statutory presumption, the intentions of the parties were not abundantly clear, and therefore the statute should apply.[28]

III. Comment

The Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision in Simpson v. Simpson provides lower courts with the correct interpretation of § 452.370. While it is difficult to find flaw in the reasoning behind this interpretation, the court’s decision raises questions as to its future implications. On one hand, by relaxing the requirements to overcome the statutory presumption, the court endorses a plain language interpretation of the agreement under contract law rather than require parties to rigidly structure the agreement so that every possible contingency is covered. This will in turn enhance negotiations and promote settlement agreements between parties. On the other hand, this ruling appears to remove a bright line rule of construction, which could result in more parties contesting their settlement agreements under a plain language interpretation. Moving forward, when drafting settlement agreements, attorneys should be wary of this possibility, and include language that rebuts the statutory presumption as unambiguously as possible.

-Andrew C. Hooper

[1] No. SC 91498 (Mo. Oct. 4, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=49731. The West reporter citation is Simpson v. Simpson, 352 S.W.3d 362 (Mo. 2011).
[2] Id. at 1.
[3] Id. at 2.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 3.
[8] Id. at 4.
[9] Id. at 3-4.
[10] Id. at 4.
[11] Id. (emphasis added).
[12] Id. at 4-5.
[13] Id. at 5.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 5-6.
[17] Id. at 6.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.370 (2000).
[21] Glenn v. Snider, 852 S.W.2d 841, 843 (Mo. 1993) (en banc).
[22] Cates v. Cates, 819 S.W.2d 731, 738 (Mo. 1991) (en banc).
[23] Id.
[24] In re Estate of Mackie, 261 S.W.3d 728, 729 (Mo. App. W.D. 2008).
[25] Id.
[26] Id. at 731.
[27] Id. at 729.
[28] Id. at 732.