We've all seen the stereotypicall ugly divorce: on TV, in movies and for some of us, in our own families or friendships. So how can it ever be a bad thing when two people are able to amicably end a marriage? When they can leave the lawyers out of it and just present the court with their own solution? Unfortunately, a recent Kansas case brings home the reality that, for some things, it truly is best to let the professionals handle it.
The Court Case
Last month, the Court of Appeals of Kansas handed down their decision in the case of In re Marriage of Johnston. But the problems which arose for Jim and Pam Johnston had been brewing for more than five years. After 34 years of marriage, the couple presented the court with a pro se divorce decree in 2011. Using forms provided by the state and a two-page separation agreement they drafted themselves, they thought they had everything resolved. Jim, a retired marine, was to take all the couple's debt, but keep the majority of his retirement benefits and income. Pam would get to keep all of her income and recieve a $1,000.00 support check each month. And that arrangement worked well for three years... until it didn't.
In 2014, Jim asked the court for permission to stop making the monthly support payments because Pam had moved in with her significant other. After denying his motion, the court surprised both parties and, based on a Kansas statute, placed a new cutoff date for the monthly payments. Pam felt cheated - that wasn't what she and Jim had agreed to years ago! But rather than appealing that decision, she brought out the big guns. She hired counsel and filed to reopen the divorce case on the basis that the initial separation agreement had not adequately divided Jim's retirement benefits.
Though Jim's monthly military retirement payment of over $3,500.00 was listed under "Other Income" in the agreement, the reviewing court felt the true value of the asset had not been fully considered by the district court. When Pam presented expert testimony that the present value of Jim's retirement benefit was just under $700,000.00, the court said it would not have approved the initial settlement agreement if it had known the true value of the benefit. The court ruled that, going forward, Pam was entitled to one half of the monthly retirement plan AND the previously agreed to $1,000.00 support payment. As one would expect, Jim appealed.
In the Court of Appeals opinion, much is made of the fact that the separation agreement was not reviewed by an attorney: "Four judges have now reviewed the agreement. Two judges find it ambiguous; two do not. This even split among four law-trained judges surely suggests ambiguity in this agreement drafted by two non-lawyer spouses." While the case was resolved strictly on a jurisdictional basis, it does raise an important point: even the most well-meaning and reasonable individuals may miss some big issues when delving into legal matter on their own.
So What Does This Mean For Me?
It seems like common sense that the more you and your spouse can work through issues on an informal level, the smoother your divorce is likely to go. But, when it comes to hammering out the details of a property division or custody concern, for example, it is always a good idea to talk to a professional. There are pluses and pitfalls to every aspect of a divorce that a good family law attorney can help you understand and navigate. Contact a Sioux City attorney, a Sioux Falls lawyer, or an Omaha attorney today to make sure what happened to the Johnstons doesn't happen to you.
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