Gaps in Divorce Record Force Reversal

The trial court incorporated a “partial agreement” between the parties into its final divorce judgment. The record on appeal contained no written evidence of that agreement, however, and the trial court had not received evidence on any contested issue. The agreement thus was not valid. And, without evidence, the trial court had no discretion to adjudicate other issues. The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the judgment and ordered the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing. Willis v. Willis, No. 2080876 (Ala. Civ. App. Feb. 26, 2010)

The trial court incorporated the parties’ “partial agreement” into a divorce judgment that purported to dispose of all pending issues between the parties. The agreement did not appear in the appellate record. Neither party had “made any representation identifying the issues upon which the parties had reached an agreement.” And the trial court had received no evidence on any of the issues that “might have still been in dispute” following the partial agreement.

The judgment thus had to be reversed, for two reasons.

First, the partial agreement was unenforceable. Under section 34-3-21 of the Alabama Code, agreements made by attorneys must be in writing or entered into the court’s minutes. Oral agreements between parties are enforceable only if made in open court or during a pretrial conference. Here, despite the parties’ representations in appellate briefing, the record contained no “written documentation” of the partial agreement, and there was “no indication that a hearing was actually conducted.” The agreement thus was not binding; the judgment incorporating it had to be reversed.

Second, because the trial court did not receive evidence on a number of issues, it “had no discretion” to adjudicate those issues. This included property division, alimony, and child support. The appellate court also noted that the record on appeal did not contain most of the forms required in child-support cases.

The Court of Civil Appeals reversed and remanded the judgment. It ordered the trial court “to conduct an evidentiary hearing on any issues upon which the parties have failed to reach a settlement agreement and to properly incorporate any settlement into its judgment.”