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Monday, October 9, 2006

Enforceability of a "Domestic Agreement"

Should a court enforce a “domestic agreement” between a polygamist-husband and one of his spiritual (but not legal) wives? 

A trial court held that Michael Combs, a Colorado businessman, and Brenda Tibbits were putative spouses when Tibbitts left their spiritual marriage in 1999.  An appellate court recently vacated that decision.  The Montrose Daily Press reports:

Under the couple’s “domestic agreement and writ of divorce,” Combs was to pay Tibbitts $4,000 per month until she turned 65, or until payments reached $868,000.  The agreement also required Combs to pay a lump sum of $100,000 and medical expenses incurred by their children. The trial court enforced the agreement and awarded Tibbits more than $2 million in prejudgment interest.

* * *An appellate court reversed, holding that the trial court erred in determining that Combs and Tibbits were “putative spouses.”  Under statute, a putative spouse is one who cohabits with another on the “good faith belief that he was married to that person until knowledge of the fact that he is not terminates his status and prevents acquisition of further rights.”

The appellate court held as a matter of law that both Combs and Tibbitts knew at all times they weren’t legally married. Thus, the appellate court concluded that the parties “domestic agreement” was not enforceable:

“No appellate court of this state has construed an agreement governing the termination of a relationship such as the one presented here,” the ruling read. “We conclude that, because the parties were not legally married, payments denominated for ‘alimony’ are unenforceable.”

On remand, the trial court must make findings as to whether "under general contract law principles, the parties’ contract is enforceable for any lawful purpose.”  If the domestic agreement is an enforceable contract, the trial court must determine whether it had been materially breached.

[Meredith R. Miller]

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