Equitable Distribution

Untimely Petition To Open And Modify Marital Settlement Agreement Due To Fraud Is Denied

Where wife filed an untimely petition to open and modify the parties’ marital settlement agreement, the trial court lacked authority to open the divorce decree due to intrinsic fraud and the question of whether intrinsic fraud existed was moot.

The parties were married in 1976. Husband filed a divorce complaint in June 2009. The parties appeared before a hearing master in August 2012 to divide marital assets, including husband’s employee pension plan. They agreed to equally divide the monthly payment benefit issued from the plan, though there was no discussion of a specific amount, and to incorporate this equal division term into a marital settlement agreement. The trial court entered a final divorce decree on Dec. 19, 2012. The parties later prepared and executed a qualified domestic relations order. In the process, the parties learned that they would each receive a monthly payment of $481 from the pension plan. Wife then filed a petition for permanent alimony seeking an additional monthly payment of $315 from husband. She claimed that husband had misrepresented the anticipated monthly pension benefit as $768 and that she came to rely on that sum in accepting the marital settlement agreement. Ultimately the trial court vacated the divorce decree and modified the marital settlement agreement by directing husband to pay wife an additional $157 each month. On husband’s appeal, the appellate court found that the trial court committed reversible error in opening and modifying the parties’ marital settlement agreement and opening the final divorce decree and QDRO. The court explained that 23 Pa.C.S. §3332 governs a trial court’s authority to open or vacate a divorce decree. Section 3332 sets forth clear evidentiary requirements and time constraints on a court’s authority to open or vacate a divorce decree, the opinion noted. A motion seeking such relief must be filed within 30 days of the divorce decree and allege intrinsic fraud or new evidence. Moreover, a motion to vacate must be filed within five years of the divorce decree where the challenge is based on extrinsic evidence, lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter or a fatal defect apparent from the face of the record, the court explained, citing 1985’s Fenstermaker v. Fenstermaker. Here, wife challenged the marital settlement agreement in a petition for permanent alimony filed about 11 months after the entry of the parties’ divorce decree. As she filed the petition more than 30 days after entry of the divorce decree, her petition could not be viewed as a timely motion to open. Therefore, the question of whether intrinsic fraud existed was moot and the trial court lacked authority to open the divorce decree due to intrinsic fraud, the court observed. Wife argued that husband introduced her reliance on his representation that she would receive $788 each month if the parties agreed to divide equally the pension. However, this was not a case in which extrinsic fraud precluded wife’s opportunity for a fair hearing. The property settlement was entered after the parties engaged in extensive, counseled negotiations after husband made full and accurate disclosure of the known facts regarding his pension. Thus, the trial court lacked authority to vacate the divorce decree based on extrinsic fraud, the court concluded.

Reference: Digest of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 41 PLW 788 (Tuesday, August 21, 2018) Bardine v. Bardine, PICS Case No. 18-0970 (Pa. Super. Aug. 2, 2018)

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