Home > divorce, divorce modification, family law general, paternity/child custody > Stipulated Decrees & Orders: Will they hold water?

Stipulated Decrees & Orders: Will they hold water?

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I recently received the following (lengthy) question in the form of a comment:

“[E]x and I stipulated a divorce decree.  I had sole physical custody, joint legal.  When we were in court, the bifurcated case considered both 1) substantial change in circumstance and 2) best interests of the child.  HOWEVER, because it was stipulated, the judge pretty much said that the change in circumstances was a non-issue.  I moved.  There was a relocation clause in our decree.  It meant nothing.  (I read your articles on alimony.  Apparently nothing means anything?)  Ex ended up with the kids.

The cases my ex’s lawyer quoted were Woodward v LaFranca, Taylor fka Elison v Elison and Elmer v Elmer.  Someone else told me that there’s another case that happened just last year that pretty much put the last nail in the coffin for stipulated decrees. (Would you happen to know which case that was?)

In an appeals trial, could you argue that a stipulated decree details the parents’ beliefs for the children’s best interests and that these are their decisions for the children…. and to disregard the parent’s wishes would be a violation of parental rights? (Yes, we obviously have one parent who has since changed their mind, but that’s the reason for the substantial change of circumstances, right?)”

You'd think we could treat the stipulated agreement more like a contract....

You’d think we could treat the stipulated agreement more like a contract….

Unfortunately for just about ALL of us, who truly do not want to have the court involved in our family life for the rest of ETERNITY, this is the answer to her questions:

The new case from 2014 that kicks stipulated agreements to the curb is RB v. LB, 339 P.3d 137 (UT Ct App 2014).  The big takeaway is that parties “cannot stipulate away the district court’s statutory responsibility to conduct a best-interest analysis.”  This was a case where the parties put in the stipulated agreement that what they were doing in terms of the custody agreement should be considered best interest from a legal standpoint.

A paragraph from this case:

“¶ 17 Father poses the question, “Can parents resolve issues of child custody via the legal procedures established for doing so as Utah law demands, have that resolution reduced to judgment, and rely on the courts to enforce the judgment once entered?” We are sympathetic to Father’s plea; in 2009, the stipulation must have seemed an elegant solution to an intractable problem. However, Utah law has recognized that in the context of a child’s well-being, interests in finality rank below the child’s welfare. See Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 603 (Utah 1989) (stating that “the res judicata aspect of the rule [favoring finality of judgments] must always be subservient to the best interests of the child” and that “even when an initial decree has adjudicated the best interests of a child, a subsequent proceeding [can] reopen that decree … if the circumstances pertaining to the decree [have] subsequently changed, so that a new determination should be made based on a full development of all material facts”). The Elmer court noted that “`[t]he best interests of the child should never be lost sight of, and rules on change in custody should not be so rigid that this overarching principle is not followed.'” Id. at 604 (quoting Kramer v. Kramer, 738 P.2d 624, 629 (Utah 1987) (Howe, J., concurring in the result)). The same logic applies to judgments predicated on stipulated agreements. Despite Father’s argument that the district court disturbed the parties’ settled expectations, the district court retained the statutory authority to conduct the best-interest analysis. Because the district court was required to ensure that Child’s best interest would be served by a change in custody, the district court did not err in conducting a best-interest analysis.[10]

So in a nutshell:  If no one challenges the agreement, it’s fine.  If one party challenges the stipulated agreement, the court is obligated to address best interest of the child, and is not bound by a stipulation, even if it purports to be in the child’s best interest.

The argument that this is a violation of parental rights is interesting, but I don’t think it will fly.  You’re looking at a case where if you rule in favor of the one parent, you’ve violated the other’s rights, and vice versa.  A possibly more solid argument would be one based in contracts–that the parties made a contract, and should be contractually obligated to abide by it.  But the court does not see child custody as something that can be the subject of a traditionally interpreted contract–it’s a violation of public policy, in that it doesn’t specifically address best interests of the child, which “should never be lost sight of…” (Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 603 (Utah 1989)).

I know it’s a crummy answer. But it’s always best to be prepared, even if what you’re learning isn’t what you want to hear.  And Remember:  This is not about Fair.  Never has been, never will.

....but NOOOOOO, you mediated for six hours to come to a solution that works for your family, and now the court gets to jack it around as it sees fit. Nice. No wonder we all hate family law.

….but NOOOOOO, you mediated for six hours to come to a solution that works for your family, and now the court gets to jack it around as it sees fit. Nice. No wonder we all hate family law.

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