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In re Marriage of Odom

May 12, 1997

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF: CHRIS H. ODOM, APPELLANT, AND CHERYL ANN ODOM, RESPONDENT.


Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 95-3-00401-0. Date filed: 01/18/96. Judge signing: Hon. John M. Darrah.

PER CURIAM. Shortly before trial was to be held on a petition to dissolve their marriage, Chris and Cheryl Odom knowingly and voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement. Chris Odom now asks us to decide whether the trial court acted without authority when it enforced the terms of the agreement relating to child support and the parenting plan. We hold the court had authority to enforce those provisions without conducting a trial. Accordingly, we affirm.

FACTS

Chris and Cheryl Odom were married on January 3, 1993. Their only child, Kimberly, was born on May 1, 1994. Both parents have cerebral palsy, but Kimberly does not. In November 1994 Chris and Cheryl separated, and Chris filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage. Trial was scheduled for December 18, 1995.

On December 1, 1995, a settlement conference was held before a retired Judge. Both parties were represented by counsel at the conference. At some point during the settlement conference, an agreement was reached between the parties on the disputed issues of parenting and child support. The settlement agreement was reduced to writing. Written documents were prepared entitled "Parenting Plan" and "Order of Child Support". These documents were reviewed and signed by both Chris and Cheryl and their attorneys. Under the terms of the agreement, Cheryl was designated the custodian of Kimberly and Chris agreed to pay $342 per month child support.

Thereafter, Chris moved to set aside the settlement agreement on the ground that it was the product of coercion. Cheryl opposed that motion and filed her own motion for an order enforcing the settlement agreement. A hearing on these cross-motions was held on December 20, 1995. Cheryl and Chris both testified at the hearing. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that the settlement entered into between the parties was fair and voluntary. Based on these findings, the court granted Cheryl's motion to enforce the settlement agreement and denied Chris' motion to set aside the agreement. Written findings of fact, Conclusions of law, and the decree of dissolution were entered on January 18, 1996.

Chris then filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing for the first time that the agreement was not binding on either the court or the parties. The court denied the motion, concluding that Marriage of Thier *fn1 does not assist the court on these facts, since no written agreement was ever put before the court in that case, and that the agreement was considered fair by both parties, attorneys and the mediator in this case when it was signed, and it remains so today . . . . This appeal followed.

ANALYSIS

Chris contends the trial court exceeded its statutory power by enforcing the parenting and child support provisions of the settlement agreement. To support his argument, he relies on RCW 26.09.070(3), which provides:

If either or both of the parties to a separation contract shall at the time of the execution thereof, or at a subsequent time, petition the court for dissolution of their marriage, for a degree of legal separation, or for a declaration of invalidity of their marriage, the contract, except for those terms providing for a parenting plan for their children, shall be binding upon the court unless it finds, after considering the economic circumstances of the parties and any other relevant evidence produced by the parties on their own motion or on request of the court, that the separation contract was unfair at the time of its execution. Child support may be included in the separation contract and shall be reviewed in the subsequent proceeding for compliance with RCW 26.19.020.

Based on the plain and unambiguous language of this statute, not all terms of a separation contract are binding on the trial court. *fn2 Cheryl responds that RCW 26.09.070(3) does not apply here because the parties did not enter into a "separation contract" as required under the statute. However, the agreement signed by Cheryl and Chris qualifies as a "separation contract" under RCW 26.09.070(1). *fn3 Cheryl also relies on In re Marriage of Ferree, 71 Wash. App. 35, 856 P.2d 706 (1993), in arguing that the trial court was empowered to enforce the settlement agreement between the parties. But her reliance on Ferree is misplaced. Unlike here, the parties in Ferree did not have any children. Under RCW 26.09.070(3), the terms of any agreement involving issues that are not child-related are considerably more likely to be binding on the court.

Attempting to take full advantage of this distinction in the statute, Chris contends "a party can freely enter into an agreement about a parenting plan, but may back out of this agreement at any time and insist upon having the court consider all the evidence and determine whatever parenting plan is in the best interests of the child." Thus, according to Chris, "[he] had the absolute right to reject his prior 'agreement' on parenting issues and insist this matter be tried by the court." We disagree.

What Chris fails to realize is that RCW 26.09.070 focuses not on whether the terms of a separation agreement are binding on the parties, but on whether they are binding "upon the court." The statute was never intended to allow contracting parties to challenge the settlement agreements they voluntarily entered into. To hold otherwise would seriously undermine the entire settlement process.

With these principles in mind, we turn to the question of whether Chris was entitled to a trial on the parenting issues. Chris contends the trial court only considered one of the seven statutory factors (the agreement of the parties) when developing the residential provisions of a permanent parenting plan under RCW 26.09.187(3)(a). Thus, he argues, the court failed to conduct an adequate review of Cheryl's mental and parental abilities in order to determine her fitness to parent Kimberly.

While it is true the trial court in its order denying Chris' motion for reconsideration made some comments which might seem to imply it felt compelled to follow the parenting provisions of the settlement agreement, there is no support in the record for Chris' argument that the court completely ignored its statutory duty under RCW 26.89.070. The language of the statute is clear. The court is presumed to know the law and apply it correctly. Given the plain language of the statute and the trial Judge's unique opportunity to personally observe the parties, *fn4 we have no doubt he understood his authority, under the appropriate ...


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