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Divorce Agreements and the Statute of Limitations: The Law in Flux


The Marital Dissolution Agreement is essentially a contract between divorcing parties that dictates what they must do to complete the divorce.  The MDA provides the instructions on how debt, property and other assets in the marital estate are to be divided and will also lay out payment obligations for alimony and child support if applicable.  The MDA will be incorporated into the "judgment" of divorce which is also known as the final decree. Oftentimes, the MDA will require some action by a spouse after the final divorce decree is entered.  What happens when that future action does not occur?  Tennessee cases indicate the spouse seeking to compel the action must be vigilant of his or her rights under the MDA and if action is not timely taken to enfoce those rights they can be lost forever.

In Marcum-Bush v. Quinn, 2018 WL 1559972 (Tenn. Ct. App., Mar. 29, 2018), perm. app. den. (Tenn. 2018), the Court of Appeals addressed the re-payment of a debt between divorced parties that was contingent upon the sale of separate real property owned by the wife or the passage of 2 years after the date of divorce. The Final Order was entered on April 18, 2006. Wife sold the property about 2 years later but did not repay the debt. Husband filed a petition for civil contempt on February 16, 2017, which was less than 10 years from the date of sale but more than 10 years from entry of the Final Order. Wife responded with a motion for judgment on the pleadings and argued the cause of action was time-barred by the statute of limitations found at T.C.A. § 28-3-110(a)(2) and Husband had failed to renew the judgment under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 69.04. Husband subsequently filed a motion to revive the judgment on May 4, 2017. The trial court ultimately denied Wife’s motion and allowed Husband to revive the prior judgment, reasoning that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the property was sold on March 31, 2008, and Husband’s motion to revive the judgment was filed within 10 years of that date. Wife appealed.

On appeal, citing Shepherd v. Lanier, 241 S.W.2d 587, 590-91 (Tenn. 1951), the Court of Appeals determined the statute of limitations began to run on the entry of final judgment in the trial court, even if further action was required to satisfy the judgment. The court concluded Husband’s motion to revive the prior judgment should have been denied by the trial court. In doing so, the court rejected Husband’s argument a writ of scire facias could be used to circumvent the 10 year time limit under Rule 69.04. The trial court’s ruling was reversed and the trial court was directed to grant Wife’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

Proctor v. Proctor, 2020 WL 2764410 (Tenn. Ct. App., May 27, 2020) involved a contempt petition filed by Wife against her former Husband. The parties were divorced on October 20, 2005. The incorporated marital dissolution agreement required Husband to make installment payments to Wife totaling $50,000 over 5 years. Husband never made the payments and on March 31, 2016, Wife filed a petition for contempt. Husband responded with a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing the contempt action was barred by the 10 year statute of limitations. The trial court denied the motion because the last payment due to Wife was within 10 years of the filing date of the petition. Husband appealed after a judgment was entered against him.

The Court of Appeals, following Marcum-Bush, held Wife’s cause of action for enforcing the previous judgment accrued on the date of divorce. It went on to state: “The fact that the parties agreed that the judgment would be paid in installments did not militate against the finality of the judgment or extend the statute of limitations to pursue an action to collect the judgment.”  The trial court’s judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court with instructions to dismiss it.

The General Assembly responded to these decisions by enacting a new law, effective March 20, 2020, which states the 10 year statute of limitations was not meant to apply to judgments in family law cases and these will remain enforceable until the judgment is paid in full or otherwise discharged.  The new law does not state whether it can be applied retroactively to judgments that would have been barred under the 10 year statute of limitations before the statute was passed.  Chances are the appellate court would rule that it does but that is not a given.  These cases highlight the necessity of tight draftmanship in a MDA whenever it compels future action by a spouse.  Realistic deadlines should be set so that both parties can enter their post-divorce lives with expectations of when events should occur.  If a party delays an unreasonable amount of time in enforcing his or her rights, a court may be inclined to give a more sympathetic ear to a defense of untimeliness.  

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