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Can a Marital Settlement Agreement Be Voided for Duress? PA Superior Court Says ‘Yes’

In Pennsylvania, no spouse has ever convinced a court to void a marital settlement agreement under grounds of duress ― until now. In deciding to do so now, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania states that previously there had been many instances where the spouse claiming duress suffered unseemly pressures to sign an agreement, but in each case, the courts concluded that those pressures did not constitute duress in the legal sense.

Below are the circumstances which finally kicked the door open.

Tumultuous Marriage

In Lewis v. Lewis, a husband and wife met when he hired her to provide childcare to his two children. The husband was age 46, and the wife was age 20. Within three weeks, they were married, and she dropped out of college and became a stay-at-home stepmom. The couple had a daughter of their own the following year. The relationship soon became tumultuous, as evidenced by multiple legal proceedings.

As set forth in the Superior Court’s opinion, the husband maintained that the wife suffered from various psychiatric disorders and that he was the victim of her physical abuse. The husband obtained a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order against the wife, which he claimed she repeatedly violated. This led to criminal charges, findings of contempt, and ultimately the wife’s incarceration.

According to the opinion, it was subsequently revealed in a in a July 2018 court hearing in which the wife obtained a PFA against the husband that he was the actual perpetrator of the abuse. He would invite the wife back to the marital home and then file contempt charges against her pursuant to his PFA. The trial court concluded: “Husband had been playing the system, using the Monroe Court of Common Pleas as one tool in furtherance of his very calculated, complex, web of domestic violence, control and intimidation against Wife.” The court awarded exclusive possession of the marital residence and temporary sole custody of the couple’s child to the wife.

The husband then filed a petition to enforce a post-nuptial settlement agreement that the parties signed in January 2017, asserting his right to exclusive possession in the marital home. The wife filed a counter-petition challenging the validity of the agreement on the grounds that she signed it under duress, among other reasons.

In June 2019, the trial court issued an order invalidating the settlement agreement, finding that the wife was under duress when she signed. The husband appealed to the Superior Court.

The Case for Duress

According to the Superior Court opinion, the husband engaged in “extensive abuse,” which included “manipulation of Wife’s mental health and medication.” The wife attempted suicide. The opinion states that while she recovered in a psychiatric hospital, the husband broached the idea of her signing the settlement agreement, which he assured her was simply a paper trail that he needed to show his employer (the federal government) that he was separated from his “crazy wife” or else his security clearance would be jeopardized.

When the wife was released from the psychiatric hospital, the husband dispersed the wife’s medications, which made her “nauseous and apathetic.” He kept them under “lock and key” and refused to tell her what they were for, the opinion states. He also forced his attendance at her psychiatry appointments.

The opinion sets forth other acts of abuse by the husband, as testified to by the wife, including:

  • He punished his wife by kicking her out of the house and forcing her to sleep on the porch at least 10 times during the course of their marriage.
  • He threatened to “file an Amber alert” if the wife took their daughter to the park.
  • He drained the joint bank account so the wife had no access to money.

The opinion further states that once the wife was finally able to free herself from the cycle of domestic violence by obtaining the PFA in July 2018, she was able to have a voice in her own mental health. She testified that none of the antidepressants or mood stabilizers were necessary, and that their numbing effect had caused her to accept her husband’s behavior and believe his absurd threats.

Circumstances Under Which the Settlement Agreement Was Signed

According to the opinion, following a psychiatry appointment, the husband gave the wife the settlement agreement and allowed her to review it in the car for 10 minutes as he drove to a notary public. He reiterated that the agreement was simply a paper trail that he needed for work and that they would not divorce. When the wife told her husband that she did not feel comfortable signing anything without consulting an attorney, the husband responded: “If you dare get a lawyer, I’m divorcing you and you will never see your daughter again.” The wife said she believed this threat, because in the past, he had inflicted punishments when she disobeyed him.

While the husband waited in the car, the wife had the agreement notarized by an acquaintance of the husband. She was told by her husband that he could not come into the notary’s office with her, or else it would look like he was forcing her to sign it. After the wife had her signature notarized, the couple drove to the husband’s counsel, where he had his signature notarized while she waited in the car.

The wife claimed she did not read the settlement agreement before she signed it. She said she asked the husband for a copy, but he refused to provide one. Until the wife obtained her PFA, the only time the parties discussed the settlement agreement was when the husband threatened her with divorce and reminded her that she was entitled to nothing, according to the opinion.

Superior Court’s Decision

In upholding the lower court’s finding that the wife was under duress when she signed the settlement agreement, the court first noted the wife’s state of mind:

When Wife signed the settlement agreement, she faced both impending physical danger, and Husband’s explicit threat that she would never see her child again unless she signed it. The physical danger and the explicit threat operated as a restraint of Wife’s free will. Because Husband had followed through with his threatened punishments before, including his improper use of the legal system to obtain sole custody, these threats caused Wife apprehension. Moreover, Wife was in a mentally and physically weakened state to resist this restraint and danger, due to the unnecessary medications Husband gave her. In short, the degree of threatened restraint and impending danger was sufficient in severity and apprehension to overcome Wife’s personal state of mind.

The Superior Court further found that the record supported the trial court’s conclusion that the wife did not have the ability to consult with an attorney. The ability to consult with an attorney has often proved to be fatal to claims of duress.

Conclusion

The Superior Court noted that a high bar must be met to void a marital settlement agreement on the grounds of duress. It cited multiple cases in which courts refused to void such agreements, including:

  • A wife alleged she was forced to sign a prenuptial agreement on the eve of her wedding, “a time when she could not seek counsel without the trauma, expense, and embarrassment of postponing the wedding.”
  • A wife alleged she was told that without a prenuptial agreement there would be no wedding, notwithstanding the fact that “she was pregnant, unemployed, and probably frightened.”
  • A case where the court concluded that “daily badgering and one and one-half hours of ‘pressure and negotiations’ does not rise to the level of coercion necessary to find duress.”

It is undeniable that divorces are frequently messy, with one or both spouses sometimes alleging abuse. We expect that going forward this case will form the basis by which many will challenge their property settlement agreement. Whether the door was kicked open for this one litigant, under this unique set of circumstances, or for many others, remains to be seen.

We will keep you advised of future developments.