Maier v. Maier, 2021-077

Docket Nº2021-077
Citation2021 VT 88
Case DateOctober 29, 2021
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

2021 VT 88

Caroline Maier
v.
Siegfried Maier

No. 2021-077

Supreme Court of Vermont

October 29, 2021


Supreme Court On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Family Division John W.Valente, J.

Nancy Corsones and Wendy Fitzsimons of Corsones and Fitzsimons, LLP, Rutland, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Barney L. Brannen and C. Justin Sheng of Brannen & Loftus, PLLC, Hanover, New Hampshire, for Defendant-Appellant.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.

ROBINSON, J.

¶ 1 Husband's estate, through a special administrator, appeals the family division's order concluding that in light of husband's death prior to entry of a final divorce order it lacked jurisdiction to consider the enforceability of the parties' stipulated agreement. We conclude that the family division correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction. Although the parties' agreement may be enforceable as a contract independent of the anticipated divorce, the civil division of the superior court, and not the family division, is the proper forum for litigating that issue. We thus affirm.

¶ 2. This case returns to the Court after we dismissed an interlocutory appeal involving the parties' divorce. Maier v. Maier, 2020 VT 63, ¶ 3, ____ Vt.___, 238 A.3d 681 (Maier I). The

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relevant procedural history is as follows. Wife filed for divorce in 2018. At that time, husband was under guardianship. In 2019, the parties filed a stipulated settlement agreement with the family division. Before the court responded, wife filed a motion to withdraw the divorce complaint and set aside the parties' stipulation. The court denied wife's motion to dismiss the divorce action and ordered an evidentiary hearing to evaluate the parties' stipulation. See Pouech v. Pouech, 2006 VT 40, ¶ 22, 180 Vt. 1, 904 A.2d 70 (holding that where party challenges stipulated agreement in anticipation of divorce before family division approval, court must consider whether agreement is fair and equitable and may reject stipulation "even if the challenging party fails to demonstrate grounds sufficient to overturn a contract").

¶ 3. We accepted wife's interlocutory appeal to determine whether wife could dismiss the divorce action against her incompetent spouse and, if so, whether husband's guardian could pursue a counterclaim for divorce. Maier I, 2020 VT 63, ¶ 1. However, before oral argument, husband died. Because husband's death abated the divorce action, we dismissed the appeal as moot. Id. ¶ 3. We rejected the estate's argument that the Court should keep the appeal to decide whether the parties' agreement remained enforceable, or to determine the proper forum to decide that issue in the first instance. We concluded that those issues were not within the scope of the interlocutory appeal, as they had not been considered by the family division. Id. ¶ 4. We indicated that, upon dismissal, the matter would return to the family division as the court from which the appeal was taken, and noted that the parties could then litigate the remaining questions, including the appropriate forum for determining the enforceability of their agreement. Id. ¶ 5.

¶ 4. Shortly thereafter, the probate division appointed David Otterman as special administrator of husband's estate pending resolution of the issues surrounding the enforceability of the settlement agreement. Subsequently, wife filed a motion for summary judgment in the family division, arguing that the settlement agreement was unenforceable for several reasons unrelated to husband's death. The court issued an order stating that it could not consider the merits

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of wife's motion until it determined whether it was the appropriate forum to litigate that issue. The court ordered the parties to file memoranda on the appropriate forum for litigating the enforceability of the parties' settlement agreement. Without briefing or analysis, the parties submitted memoranda stating that the family division was the appropriate forum to hear the issue.

¶ 5. In response, the family division issued an order of its own accord dismissing the case. It explained that the family division is a court of limited jurisdiction with the power to hear and determine divorce complaints and distribute marital assets. See 4 V.S.A. § 33. Because husband died prior to judgment, the court reasoned that "[n]o marriage survives to divorce, no marital assets exist to distribute, and no independent determination of an equitable distribution has occurred. There are no matters pursuant to 4 V.S.A. § 33 before the [family division]." The court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the parties' competing claims concerning the enforceability of the settlement agreement, and dismissed the matter. The family division denied the estate's motion for reconsideration, and the estate appealed.

¶ 6. On appeal, the special administrator argues that the family division erred by concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the enforceability of the settlement agreement. It maintains that under Estate of Ladd v. Estate of Ladd, 161 Vt. 270, 640 A.2d 29 (1994), the agreement may survive the abatement of a divorce action if the agreement shows that the parties intended it to take effect notwithstanding a final decree of divorce. The special administrator contends that the family division is the most appropriate forum to determine whether the agreement is enforceable and whether it is fair and equitable, but suggests that the civil and probate divisions might also have jurisdiction to consider the issue.

¶ 7. Wife argues that the estate's claim regarding the enforceability of the settlement agreement does not survive husband's death, so the special administrator lacks standing to bring this appeal. On the merits, she argues that because the family division did not approve the settlement agreement prior to husband's death, after considering the factors set forth in Pouech,

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2006 VT 40, ¶ 23, the agreement is unenforceable as a matter of law. She argues that if the agreement is enforceable, the family division is the proper forum for conducting a hearing to consider the Pouech factors.

¶ 8. We reject wife's arguments that the special administrator lacks standing to pursue this appeal, and conclude on the merits that the family division properly dismissed the divorce action which abated as a result of husband's death. Because the issue will arise following our resolution of this appeal, we address the potential enforceability of the parties' agreement, the proper forum for litigating the question, and the applicable standards. We conclude that the agreement may be enforceable in the civil division of the superior court provided the civil division determines that the parties intended to be bound by the agreement independent of the divorce action and concludes that the agreement is fair and equitable.

I. Special Administrator's Standing

¶ 9. Wife argues that the special administrator lacks standing because the estate's claim to enforce the agreement does not survive husband's death. She essentially argues that the divorce action, and any other action to enforce the contract, is moot, and therefore the special administrator lacks standing. See Paige v. State, 2017 VT 54, ¶ 7, 205 Vt. 287, 171 A.3d 1101 ("A case becomes moot-and this Court loses jurisdiction-when there no longer is an actual controversy or the litigants no longer have a legally cognizable interest in the outcome of the case.").

¶ 10. In so arguing, wife has collapsed the standing question into the merits of the jurisdictional question. We have emphasized that "standing and the merits [of a claim] are separate inquiries, such that the former does not depend on the latter." Wool v. Off. of Pro. Regul., 2020 VT 44, ¶ 11, 212 Vt. 305, 236 A.3d 1250. It is true that if husband's death abated the divorce action such that the family division has no jurisdiction to consider the parties' competing claims concerning the agreement, any claims in the family division based upon the agreement are moot. But whether that is the case is precisely the issue before us. In considering wife's argument for

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dismissal of this appeal on the basis that the special administrator lacks standing, we consider whether the special administrator has legal standing to litigate that question through to its conclusion.

¶ 11. Vermont law permits a special administrator to "commence, prosecute, or defend, in the right of the deceased, actions that survive to the executor or administrator and are necessary for the recovery and protection of the property or rights of the deceased," and to "prosecute or defend the actions commenced in the lifetime of the deceased." 14 V.S.A. § 1401.; see also id. § 1451 (surviving actions include "actions that survive by common law"). A special administrator "may commence and maintain actions as an administrator." Id. § 963.

¶ 12. The special administrator's appeal falls within this general grant of authority. The action on appeal was commenced during husband's lifetime, and the special administrator claims the parties' agreement survives husband's death and seeks to enforce that agreement. Accordingly, we decline to dismiss this appeal on the basis that the special administrator lacks standing.

II. Merits of Appeal

¶ 13. The narrow question directly before us is whether the family division erred in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to evaluate the enforceability of the parties' agreement because husband's death abated the divorce action.

¶ 14. The scope of the family court's jurisdiction is a question of law that we review without deference to the trial court. See Cameron v. Rollo, 2014 VT 40, ¶ 7, 196 Vt. 346, 97 A.3d 454 (reviewing without deference civil division's determination that family division had exclusive jurisdiction over action to recover property acquired during marriage subsequently declared void).

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3 practice notes
  • State v. Boyajian, 21-056
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 18 Marzo 2022
    ...contains no such requirement—"collapse[s] the standing question into the merits" of the statutory question. Maier v. Maier, 2021 VT 88, ¶ 10, ––– Vt. ––––, 266 A.3d 778 ; see also Wool v. Off. of Pro. Regul., 2020 VT 44, ¶ 11, 212 Vt. 305, 236 A.3d 1250 ("[S]tanding and the m......
  • State v. Boyajian, 2021-056
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 18 Marzo 2022
    ...contains no such requirement- "collapse[s] the standing question into the merits" of the statutory question. Maier v. Maier, 2021 VT 88, ¶ 10, Vt., 266 A.3d 778; see also Wool v. Off. of Pro. Regul., 2020 VT 44, ¶ 11, 212 Vt. 305, 236 A.3d 1250 ("[S]tanding and the merits are......
  • Harris v. Harris, 22-CV-01344
    • United States
    • Vermont Superior Court of Vermont
    • 19 Julio 2022
    ...is a court of general jurisdiction. Quinlan v. Five-Town Health Alliance, Inc., 2018 VT 53, ¶ 27, 207 Vt. 503; see also Maier v. Maier, 2021 VT 88, ¶ 35 (same); 4 V.S.A. § 31 (vesting the civil division with "original and exclusive jurisdiction of all original civil actions" subje......
1 cases
  • State v. Boyajian, 2021-056
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 18 Marzo 2022
    ...the statute contains no such requirement- "collapse[s] the standing question into the merits" of the statutory question. Maier v. Maier, 2021 VT 88, ¶ 10, Vt., 266 A.3d 778; see also Wool v. Off. of Pro. Regul., 2020 VT 44, ¶ 11, 212 Vt. 305, 236 A.3d 1250 ("[S]tanding and the merits are se......

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