Meehan v. Meehan

Citation425 N.E.2d 157
Case DateSeptember 08, 1981
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

William L. McClellan, Greencastle, for appellant.

J. D. Calbert, Calbert & Bremer, Greencastle, for appellee.

HUNTER, Justice.

This cause is before us on the petition to transfer of William Meehan, wherein he seeks review of the Court of Appeals' opinion found at Meehan v. Meehan, (1981) Ind.App., 415 N.E.2d 762. There, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion in modifying a child support order. We hereby grant transfer, vacate Attendant to the legal proceedings which culminated in the dissolution of their marriage in 1976, Barbara and William tendered a proposed "Property Settlement Agreement" to the court. The caption "Property Settlement Agreement" was somewhat of a misnomer, for the document contained provisions regarding the proposed custody and support of the couple's four unemancipated children, as well as the marital property. The document reads in pertinent part:

the opinion of the Court of Appeals, and reinstate the judgment of the trial court.


"WHEREAS, the above-named parties have heretofore filed a cause for dissolution of the marriage of such parties in the Putnam Circuit Court and it being the mutual desire of the parties to resolve property rights, it is Covenanted and Agreed as follows:

"1. That the parties shall each have their personal effects and that the same have been taken by each party into his or her possession and there remain no items of personal effects to be divided.

"2. That Petitioner shall have as her absolute property all household goods, wares and appliances to make a home for the minor, dependent children of the parties.

"3. That Petitioner shall have the legal care and custody of the four (4) unemancipated children: CARLIA CHRISTINE, age 18 years, JENNIFER RUTH, age 15 years, PATRICK JAMES, age 13 years, and MEGAN KATHLEEN, age 11 years, subject to rights of visitation to the Respondent at all reasonable and proper times.

"4. That Respondent shall pay through the office of the Clerk of the Putnam Circuit Court the sum of $500.00 a month for the care and keep of said children, which sum shall be payable until Megan Kathleen has completed her high school education or is emancipated.

"5. That Respondent shall be liable for the higher educational costs of each of the aforesaid children for college and living expenses which amount to more than $100.00 each per month. If the said Megan Kathleen is enrolled in an accredited college after the termination of Respondent's liability for the $500.00 monthly support payment, Respondent shall be liable for all of said child's college and living expenses.

"6. Respondent shall pay all necessary medical, doctor, hospital, dental, optical and pharmaceutical bills for the dependent children of the parties and shall keep current the premiums on each child's life insurance coverage.

"7. That Petitioner shall have the right of occupancy of the apartment building of the parties and shall make all payments thereon, including taxes and insurance, and shall have the income therefrom.

"11. That this settlement agreement is full, complete and absolute and forever shall determine the rights between these parties as to their property interests and liabilities one unto the other."

The final decree of the trial court, which embodied most of the terms agreed to by the parties, reads in its entirety:

"Comes now the parties in person the petitioner being represented by her attorney and this cause being at issue upon the petition, witnesses are sworn and evidence is heard and the Court now finds that the bonds of matrimony heretofore existing by and between the parties be and they are hereby dissolved; that the petitioner is a fit and proper person to have the care and custody of the unemancipated minor children of the parties: Carlia, age 18, Jennifer, age 15, Patrick, age 13 and Megan, age 11, and the respondent is ordered to pay into the office of the Clerk, the sum of $500.00 on the first day of each month hereafter for the support and maintenance of said minor children plus all reasonable and necessary medical, dental, optical and hospital expenses As the Court of Appeals noted, the trial court did not expressly incorporate and merge the settlement agreement into its final decree. The Court of Appeals stated:

and that such support payments shall continue until the youngest of such minor children, Megan is regularly enrolled in an accredited university and at which time they shall cease and he shall continue to pay such expenses as may be necessary for the further education of such minor children. The parties further agree that the petitioner shall have the right to occupy the jointly owned property of the parties located at 411 E. Seminary Street, Greencastle, Indiana until such time as the youngest of said children is emancipated and that thereafter said property shall be sold pursuant to the terms of the property settlement agreement which being examined is approved by the Court. Court further finds that the respondent shall be allowed to claim such children as exemptions on his Federal Income Tax Return and have such children with him for extended visitations. Judgment on finding."

"At the onset we would draw attention to the somewhat incomplete form of the decree. The statute calls for an express approval of the agreement and an express incorporation and merger of its terms into the final decree. We find the trial court's approval of the agreement only on the face of the document; the incorporation and merger of its terms are effected by paraphrase and reference. Nevertheless, we will consider the appeal in light of the terms of the agreement as if fully approved, incorporated, and merged into the decree. Id. at 765 (emphasis added).

The supposition of the Court of Appeals that the settlement agreement was incorporated and merged into the decree, in the absence of express language to that effect, was erroneous.

It is well settled that a trial court has the discretion to accept, modify, or reject in whole or part a settlement agreement. Ind.Code § 31-1-11.5-10(b) (Burns 1980 Repl.); Anderson v. Anderson, (1979) Ind.App., 399 N.E.2d 391; Waitt v. Waitt, (1977) 172 Ind.App. 357, 360 N.E.2d 268; Flora v. Flora, (1975) 166 Ind.App. 620, 337 N.E.2d 846. In light of this rule, it is vital to effective and intelligent appellate review that express and unequivocal language be required to effectuate the incorporation and merger of a settlement agreement, as per Ind.Code § 31-1-11.5-10, supra, and case authority regarding the incorporation and merger of extraneous documents. See, e.g., State v. Doane, (1974) 262 Ind. 75, 311 N.E.2d 803; Bircher v. Wasson, (1962) 133 Ind.App. 27, 180 N.E.2d 118. Otherwise, particularly where a partial acceptance and rejection was at issue, the resolution of the question whether the trial court intended to incorporate and merge a settlement agreement or particular portions thereof would be dependent on conjecture. In our attempt to decipher trial courts' true intentions, it would be inevitable that, as here, conclusions would be reached in a manner inconsistent with the long-standing rule that a court speaks only through its official orders and entries. Blum's Lumber and Crating, Inc. v. James, (1972) 259 Ind. 220, 285 N.E.2d 822; State ex rel. Taylor v. Offutt, (1956) 235 Ind. 552, 135 N.E.2d 241.

Consequently, we emphasize that a trial court, when presented with a settlement agreement for its consideration, should carefully delineate in express and unequivocal terms those portions which it is incorporating and merging into its order. Absent an effective incorporation and merger, of course, a settlement agreement or its unincorporated portions is not binding on the parties. Anderson v. Anderson, supra; Grace v. Quigg, (1971) 150 Ind.App. 371, 276 N.E.2d 594.

While the Court of Appeals' supposition that the trial court intended to incorporate and merge the settlement agreement warrants our attention, the matter is not dispositive here. Assuming the incorporation and merger were properly effected, the reversal of the trial court's decision to modify its support order is still not warranted.

It is a well settled rule of contract law that the parties to an agreement cannot enforce terms which contravene statutory law. Baltimore & O. S. R. Co. v. Hagan, (1915) 183 Ind. 522, 109 N.E. 194; Brokaw v. Brokaw, (1980) Ind.App., 398 N.E.2d 1385; McClain's Estate v. McClain, (1962) 133 Ind.App. 645, 183 N.E.2d 842. Similarly stated, the traditional rules of contract law yield to the provisions of the Dissolution of Marriage Act, Ind.Code § 31-1-11.5-1 et seq. (Burns 1980 Repl.). Anderson v. Anderson, supra.

While the Dissolution of Marriage Act is designed to promote the amicable settlement of disputes which accompany the end of a marriage, the legislature expressly limited the contractual capacity of the parties to finally and forever settle their child support obligations. In subsection (a) of Ind.Code § 31-1-11.5-10, supra, the legislature provided that the parties may agree to: (1) "the maintenance of either of them"; (2) "the disposition of any property owned by either or both of them"; and (3) "the custody and support of their children." Id. (emphasis added). Subsection (c) of the same statute provides:

"The disposition of property settled by such an agreement and incorporated and merged into the decree shall not be subject to subsequent modification by the court except as the agreement itself may prescribe or the parties may subsequently consent." Id. (emphasis added).

Support orders entered pursuant to settlement agreements are not subject to the mandates of subsection (c), for the legislature expressly distinguished "child support" from "property" in subsection (a) of...

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