July 9, 2014 Session
Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sevier County No. 97-1441-II Richard R. Vance, Judge
Cynthia Richardson Wyrick and Anna C. Penland, Sevierville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Johnnie Stewart.
Rebecca D. Slone, Dandridge, Tennessee, for the appellee, Judy Smith Stewart.
Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., and W. Neal McBrayer, J., joined.
THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Judy Smith Stewart ("Wife") and Johnnie Stewart ("Husband") were married in 1972 and divorced in 1997. Eight children were born of the marriage, four of whom were still minors at the time of the divorce. When they divorced, the parties reached an agreement regarding all issues, including custody of the children, child support, division of assets and debts, and alimony. Wife's attorney drafted Husband's pro se answer as well as the parties' final decree containing the terms of their agreement, both of which Husband signed without the benefit of counsel. The complaint for divorce, pro se answer, and final decree were filed in the Sevier County Circuit Court on the same day as the divorce hearing, with the parties stipulating that grounds for divorce existed. Husband appeared at the hearing and acknowledged his understanding of and acquiescence to the parties' agreement.
Relevant to the issues presented on appeal, the parties' final decree contains the following provision:
The wife shall receive custody of the parties' four minor children and the husband shall receive liberal visitation subject to his and the children's schedules. The husband shall pay support equal to 46% of his net income, including any and all bonuses, pursuant to the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. Said amount is equal to $3, 114.00 per month. Said amount shall never be decreased as any child reaches the age of majority as the amount for which the husband would be entitled a decrease shall be deemed spousal support. It is the intent of the parties and is so ordered by the Court that even after the last minor child reaches the age of majority, the husband shall continue to pay the above referenced amount as spousal support until the wife remarries or dies.
Shortly after entry of the final decree, Husband consulted with an attorney and filed a motion seeking to set the final decree aside. The trial court denied the motion, finding, inter alia, that (1) marital dissolution agreements are favored by the courts, (2) the terms of the agreement were not unfair, (3) Husband had the opportunity to consult with an attorney but chose not to do so, (4) Husband was educated, and (5) he entered into the agreement freely. Husband appealed the trial court's ruling to this Court.
This Court affirmed the trial court's denial of Husband's motion seeking to set aside the final decree. See Stewart v. Stewart, No. 03A01-9806-CV-00180, 1999 WL 134873 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 10, 1999). In that decision, this Court quoted at length from the trial court's findings and concluded that those findings were correct based upon its own review of the record. This Court also noted:
Before concluding, we observe that awards of child support to the four minor children of the parties–which will be converted to alimony as each reaches his or her majority–and of alimony are never final but may be modified from time to time as warranted by changing circumstances.
Id. at *2. The matter was then remanded to the trial court.
Husband paid the agreed and ordered amount of child support and alimony for many years, continuing such payments after the parties' youngest child reached the age of majority in 2006. In May 2012, Husband filed a motion seeking to terminate the alimony obligation, citing a substantial and material change of circumstances. In support, Husband alleged that his health had declined significantly, his income was reduced, and he was approaching retirement. Husband asserted that he would no longer be able to pay the agreed amount of alimony. He also claimed that Wife no longer needed spousal support.
Following a hearing wherein the trial court considered oral arguments from counsel, the court denied Husband's motion, concluding that the parties' agreement "clearly set out that [the alimony] would be alimony in futuro that would not be modified, would not be decreased for any reason until the wife died or remarried, neither of which events have occurred." Husband filed a motion requesting that the court reconsider its ruling. The ...