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Duffy v. Duffy

August 25, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (DRB-450-02). (Hon. Odessa F. Vincent, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued June 28, 2005

Before FARRELL and RUIZ, Associate Judges, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.

Appellant challenges the trial court's enforcement of the parties' separation agreement as part of its Judgment of Absolute Divorce. The trial court found that the agreement, which was contained in a letter signed by both parties, was complete and unambiguous on its face, and that the parties had demonstrated an intention to be bound by it. Consequently, the trial court found that the agreement is an enforceable contract, and required appellant to provide appellee with an accounting of the child support that was in arrears under the terms of the separation agreement, pay the outstanding amount within thirty days, and continue to pay child support in the amount provided for in the separation agreement. Finding no error in the trial court's judgment, we affirm.


The parties were married in Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 29, 1977. They adopted a daughter, born on September 19, 1995, who began residing with them on September 21, 1995. In 1998, appellant decided he wanted to separate from his wife. During their separation, the parties worked together to sell their marital home, divide the proceeds, pay their various debts, and distribute their personal property.

The parties also devoted considerable time and attention to resolving other issues of their divorce. At appellant's recommendation, they met with a lawyer who specialized in divorce mediation. They also met on their own on several occasions and had extensive discussions about their respective settlement concerns via e-mail.

In an effort to save time and attorney's fees, the parties negotiated an agreement on the terms of their divorce, which the appellee reduced to writing in the form of a letter addressed to her attorney, whom the parties agreed would then prepare a formal agreement incorporating the terms they agreed upon for review by appellant's lawyer. The letter dealt with a broad range of outstanding issues, including financial terms, child support, and the legal and physical custody of their daughter. On May12, 2001, both parties read over the letter drafted by appellee and signed it (hereinafter referred to as the "Letter").

Soon after, counsel for appellee prepared a Marital Settlement Agreement (hereinafter referred to as the "Draft Agreement") incorporating the terms set out in the Letter, and sent it to appellant on May 23, 2001.*fn1 Although appellant did not execute the Draft Agreement, the parties abided by the terms set out in the Letter from May 2001, when the Letter was signed, until November 2002, when appellant unilaterally reduced his child support payment from the $5000 per month provided for in the Letter, to $2000 per month.

Appellant filed a Complaint for Absolute Divorce, Custody and Related Relief with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on February 11, 2002. Upon dismissal of his complaint by stipulation, he filed an Amended Complaint on December 27, 2002. With her answer, appellee simultaneously filed a Counter-Complaint for Absolute Divorce and Related Relief contending that in the Letter the parties had resolved all issues remaining from the marriage. At trial, appellant testified that his main point of contention was the amount of child support set out in the Letter ($5000 per month), and that he challenged the enforceability of the Letter as an agreement primarily in order to have the court reach an independent judgment as to the appropriate amount of child support, which he proposed should be $2000 per month -- the amount to which he had reduced his monthly support payment in November 2002. The trial court determined, however, that the Letter is an enforceable contract, and in the order granting appellant's complaint for divorce, ordered past and ongoing child support to be paid in the amount specified in the Letter.


The law in this jurisdiction encourages the use of separation agreements to settle the financial affairs of spouses who intend to divorce. See Bracey v. Bracey, 589 A.2d 415, 416 (D.C. 1991); see also Lanahan v. Nevius, 317 A.2d 521, 523 (D.C. 1974). This policy is based on the notion that the parties are in a better position than the court to determine what is fair and reasonable in their circumstances. See Le Bert-Francis v. Le Bert-Francis, 194 A.2d 662, 664 (D.C. 1963). In the absence of fraud, duress, concealment or overreaching, a separation agreement is presumptively valid and binding no matter how ill-advised a party may have been in executing it. See Reynolds v. Reynolds, 415 A.2d 535, 537 (D.C. 1980); see also Le Bert-Francis, 194 A.2d at 664 (ruling that a rebuttable presumption of validity exists where an agreement is fair on its face).

A separation agreement is a contract, subject to the same law governing other contracts. See Owen v. Owen, 427 A.2d 933, 937 (D.C. 1981); see also Lanahan, 317 A.2d at 524. "For there to be an enforceable contract, there must be mutual assent of the parties to all the essential terms of the contract." Malone v. Saxony Coop. Apartments, 763 A.2d 725, 729 (D.C. 2000); cf. Jack Baker, Inc. v. Office Space Dev. Corp., 664 A.2d 1236, 1238 (D.C. 1995) (an oral agreement, reached ahead of a written contract, lacked many important details contained in the written version, and therefore was not enforceable). In order to prove the existence of an enforceable contract, therefore, there must be "(1) an agreement to all material terms, and (2) intention of the parties to be bound." Id.; see also Georgetown Entm't Corp. v. District of Columbia, 496 A.2d 587, 590 (D.C. 1985). This court reviews the trial court's legal conclusion that a contract is enforceable de novo, but the trial court's subsidiary factual findings are treated as "presumptively correct unless they are clearly erroneous or unsupported by the record." Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 974 (D.C. 2000) (quoting Auxier v. Kraisel, 466 A.2d 416, 418 (D.C. 1983)); see D.C. Code ยง ...

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