Court of Appeals finds prenuptial agreement only partially limited family court’s jurisdiction

Posted Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney's Fees, Equitable Distribution/Property Division, Jurisdiction, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

The March 26, 2014 Court of Appeals opinion in Meehan v. Meehan407 S.C. 471, 756 S.E.2d 398 (Ct. App. 2014) determined that the Meehans’ prenuptial divested the family court of jurisdiction for some issues but not the issue of attorney’s fees as it related to child custody and support.

Prior to their marriage, the Meehans entered into an agreement which provided in part that the only marital property they would acquire is property that was formally titled in both names.  The prenuptial agreement also stated that the Family Court would not have jurisdiction over any pre-marital property of either party or over property acquired after the marriage, unless same be titled in joint names, and that this agreement as to the absence of jurisdiction shall be unmodifiable.

As part of the consideration for the agreement the parties waived alimony with Husband agreeing to procure a life insurance policy in the amount of $1,000,000 with Wife as the beneficiary and, upon divorce, to pay Wife $10,000 for each full year of marriage. Further, “[b]oth parties agree[d] to waive their respective rights to attorney’s fees, witness fees, counsel fees or other fees normally incident to the prosecution of actions for divorce or legal separation.”

Wife subsequently filed a divorce action.  At the time of trial the parties had been married nineteen years.  Wife requested enforcement of the prenuptial agreement (specifically $190,000 plus an order requiring Husband to procure the $1,000,000 life insurance policy) and child support [though the opinion is unclear, it appears child custody was resolved prior to trial].  Husband argued that the prenuptial agreement divested the family court of the right to enforce the prenuptial agreement provisions regarding life insurance and payment of $190,000.

During trial Wife requested attorney’s fees.  Husband objected, pursuant to Rule 2, SCRFC, because the Wife did not request attorney’s fees in her pleadings. Wife argued Rule 15, SCRCP, allowed the family court to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence if it did not prejudice the opposing party.

The family court determined that, because the parties had agreed only the issues of divorce and child support were before the family court, it did not have jurisdiction over the issue of attorney’s fees. The family court further held it lack jurisdiction to enforce the prenuptial agreement.  Wife appealed.

The Court of Appeals, relying upon the case of Gilley v. Gilley, 327 S.C. 8, 488 S.E.2d 310 (1997), held that when a prenuptial agreement divests the family court of jurisdiction over property distribution, the proper forum to seek enforcement is in the Circuit Court. Thus it affirmed the family court’s determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the prenuptial agreement.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the issue of attorney’s fees.  While noting that prenuptial agreements can divest the family court of the right to award attorney’s fees, the Meehans’ agreement only dealt with attorney’s related to divorce or separate maintenance.  Thus the family court retained jurisdiction to award fees incidental to the child custody and support issues.

The Court of Appeals further found that Rule 2, SCRFC, does not limit the family court’s ability to apply Rule 15, SCRCP, which allows for amendment of pleadings to conform to the evidence if it does not prejudice the opposing party.  Finding Husband was not prejudiced by Wife’s requested amendment, the Court of Appeals remanded the issue of attorney’s fees related to Wife’s child custody and support requests.

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