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Supreme Court Affirms Stipulated Final Divorce Order

In Kenneth Coons v. Melissa Coons, 2016 VT 88 (Aug. 5, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed a stipulated final order for divorce.

Issue: In May of 2015, the parties were in the process of getting divorced. Near the end of the second day of their final divorce hearing, the trial court asked counsel to meet in chambers, where it informed the parties that the husband’s military retirement could not be distributed as marital property because he had not served the proper amount of time to vest. After the conversation in chambers, both parties entered into a stipulation in which the wife waived any claim to the husband’s expected military retirement benefit. The trial court then incorporated the stipulation into the final divorce decree. In late May, the wife filed a Rule 59 motion to alter or amend the final order, arguing that the trial court had made a mistake in telling the parties that the unvested benefits were not subject to division as marital property. The trial court held that the wife was bound by her stipulation. She appealed, arguing that the stipulation as based on a mutual mistake of law and as such should be void and that her motion was timely.

Holding: The Court affirmed the stipulated final order, holding that the wife could have researched the military pension issue before entering into the stipulation. Because she did not do so, the Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it upheld the stipulation. The Court also found that there was no obligation to review the stipulation for fairness. While the wife did object to the stipulation before the final order was docketed, it had already been executed and incorporated into a final order that the trial court signed. It did not matter that the order had not been docketed before the wife filed her Rule 59 motion.

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