This property settlement agreement post was authored by a RI divorce lawyer who is a regular at Providence Family Court.
Alimony obligations in a property settlement agreement
The Seminal Case in Rhode Island concerning Rhode Island Property Settlement Agreements and Modification of RI Alimony is Riffenburg v Riffenberg, 585 A.2d 627 (1991) decided by The Rhode Island Supreme Court in 1991.
Can I modify my property settlement agreement after the divorce?
- NO. A court has no authority to modify a property settlement agreement after a divorce.
- The parties may modify the agreement so long as the modified agreement is in writing and signed in front of a notary.
- The provisions related to the children such as custody, visitation and child support are always modifiable if there is substantial change in circumstances.
Riffenburg determined that the Rhode Island Family Court had “no authority” to modify a property settlement agreement (marital settlement agreement) which was incorporated but not merged into the final judgment of divorce. This means that the court can interpret and enforce a property settlement agreement (PSA) but cannot modify it. Nonetheless, equitable contract defenses such as unconscionably, and fraud can still be utilized in Rhode Island Family Court.
If you own real estate or have substantial assets, your divorce lawyer should prepare a property settlement agreement. This marital settlement agreement will set forth clearly the following:
- Asset distribution
- Debt assignment
- Health insurance obligations
- alimony obligations or waivers
- Life insurance obligations and ownership
- Personal property distribution
- Real estate issues
- trust and estate issues
- Pension, 401k and retirement account distributions and survivor beneficiary obligations
- Federal and state tax obligations
- Other provisions normally put in such contracts
Below you will find the most important quotes from the Riffenburg Decision:
“We rule today that a separation agreement that is not merged into a divorce judgment retains the characteristics of a contract…Hence we hold today that the judiciary is without authority to modify alimony in a non-merged separation agreement….In this unsurprising holding, we are essentially adhering to hundreds of years of contract theory that the modification of contracts can only be accomplished by the contracting parties. As the average contract that is fairly entered into is non modifiable by a court, so too is the separation agreement with respect to alimony…. We note further that since the non merged separation agreement has the characteristics of a contract and not a court judgment, the remedy for a party aggrieved by nonperformance of the contract is to sue for specific performance in a breach of contract action.” Quotes from Rhode Island Supreme Court: RIFFENBURG v. RIFFENBURG 585 A.2d 627 (1991) No. 89-402-Appeal. Supreme Court of Rhode Island. January 16, 1991. William J. Gallogly, Lenihan, Moone & Gallogly, Westerly, for plaintiff. Thomas J. Capalbo, Jr., Westerly, for defendant. OPINION MURRAY, Justice.
Black letter law : Property settlement agreements in Rhode Island
“We review de novo the terms and provisions of a property settlement agreement that has not been merged into a divorce judgment. See Furtado v. Goncalves, 63 A.3d 533, 537 (R.I.2013). “A property settlement agreement ‘that is not merged into a divorce judgment retains the characteristics of a contract.’ “ DiPaola v. DiPaola, 16 A.3d 571, 576 (R.I.2011) (quoting Riffenburg v. Riffenburg, 585 A.2d 627, 630 (R.I.1991)). “A reviewing court has no need to construe contractual provisions unless those terms are ambiguous.” Id. (quoting A.F. Lusi Construction. Inc. v. Peerless Insurance Co., 847 A.2d 254, 258 (R.I.2004)). A contractual term is ambiguous if it is “reasonably and clearly susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Id. (quoting A.F. Lusi Construction, Inc., 847 A.2d at 258). In determining ambiguity, we construe contractual language in an “ordinary, common sense manner.” City of East Providence v. United Steelworkers of America, Local 15509, 925 A.2d 246, 251 (R.I.2007) (quoting Garden City Treatment Center, Inc. v. Coordinated Health Partners, Inc., 852 A.2d 535, 542 (R.I.2004) (emphasis omitted)).” Joanne MILLER v. Henry SAUNDERS et al.
Prenuptial agreements / premarital agreements
These types of agreements are handled very differently by the Rhode Island Family Court and are governed by a Rhode Island statute.
Rhode Island divorce attorney
If you are in need of legal advice or representation, please contact Rhode Island divorce lawyer, David Slepkow. David has been a RI divorce attorney and child custody lawyer for over 20 years in Rhode Island Family Court.
Legal Notice per RI Rules of Professional Responsibility:
The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all lawyers and attorneys in the general practice of law, but does not license or certify any lawyer/ attorney as an expert or specialist in any field of practice.