Family Law Case Review: Ryan v. Ryan

Case: Sean Thomas Ryan v. Dee Anna Ryan

by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Indiana Supreme Court holds that, where a divorce property settlement agreement provided that two parcels of real estate would be sold only if minimum net proceeds could be gained from the sale, that term is non-modifiable and the trial court is without authority to modify it over the objection of either party, for example, because of a substantial decline in the real estate market.

FACTS: Husband and Wife entered into a property settlement agreement that was approved by the trial court in 2008. The parties owned a primary residence and a lake house. Under the terms of the property settlement agreement, either party could force a sale of the primary residence, if doing so yielded net proceeds of at least $1,100,000, or of the lake house, if doing so yielded net proceeds of at least $300,000. Pending sale, the costs of carrying each house would be divided 75% to Husband and 25% to Wife.

After Decree, each property was listed well above the respective prices necessary to yield the minimum proceeds. However, with the concurrent collapse of the real estate market, each property continued to sit on the market into 2010, with Wife apparently unwilling to sell either property at a price less than required to yield the minimum sale proceeds. In response, Husband filed a Trial Rule 60(B)(8) motion for relief from judgment. The trial court denied Husband’s motion, from which he appealed.

The Supreme Court reviewed the general rule that property settlement agreements (and orders) are non-modifiable, absent fraud – and no fraud was asserted in this instance.  While the Court noted that a trial court maintains authority to interpret ambiguous provisions of a decree, the Court found no ambiguities in the instant sale terms. The Court also noted that a trial court may retain jurisdiction to address issues not covered by a Decree, but that such was not the case here, as a prospective sale yielding less than the agreed upon proceeds was plainly contemplated as being subject to absolutely rejection by either party.

In affirming the trial court’s denial of relief to Husband, the Supreme Court closed with this admonition:

…in writing this opinion, we have been struck by the recurrence of several fact patterns that have been avoidably problematic – the use of dollar amounts rather than percentages, the failure of a QDRO’s terms to confirm to ERISA requirements, the failure to provide a contingency if the marital residence cannot be sold – and trust that practitioners and judges alike will contemplate them in their work as well.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Sean Thomas Ryan v. Dee Anna Ryan

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