On Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, the Commonwealth Supreme Court issued a ruling in Estrellita S. Ada v. Patrick M. Calvo, affirming the trial court's order requiring Calvo to transfer title in the family residence to his former spouse Ada, as trustee for the parties' children, in accordance with the parties' divorce agreement.
Ada and Calvo married in July 1988. During their marriage they had three children. In 1999, Ada filed for divorce in the Commonwealth Superior Court. In December 2000, Ada and Calvo signed the divorce agreement, which, among other things, called for Calvo to pay Ada $20,000 in four installments in return for Ada's agreement to disclaim entitlement to various items of marital property. If Calvo failed to make these installment payments, the agreement required Calvo to transfer title to the family residence to Ada, to hold as trustee for the parties' children until the youngest child reached 18. The parties cohabited after the divorce for roughly four years, during which Calvo made no installment payments but routinely provided Ada with money.
After the parties separated for a second time, Ada filed a petition with the trial court, noting that Calvo had not made the installment payments and that the court should, therefore, transfer title in the family residence to Ada as trustee. Calvo filed an opposition, arguing that the various payments he made to Ada during their period of reconciliation satisfied the $20,000 debt. The trial court rejected Calvo's argument, reasoning that the payments during cohabitation reflected “commonly shared expenses of a cohabiting couple.” The trial court then ordered Calvo to transfer title in the residence to Ada and Calvo appealed.
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on all grounds. The High Court analyzed 8 CMC Section 1311, which governs custody, support, and property distribution in divorce situations. The court held that while the statute allows for modification of custody and support orders, it does not allow modification of property distributions, reaffirming a prior opinion of the Supreme Court, Reyes v. Reyes, 2001 MP 13. The court also rejected Calvo's argument that another provision of the agreement allowed the court to modify the property distribution, holding that the provision involved enforcement rather than modification. Finally, the court rejected an argument from Calvo that the trial court has general equitable authority to modify property distributions over the objection of one party. The court held that “trial court may not, over the objection of one party to the agreement, modify a property distribution integrated into a divorce decree in the absence of statutory authority or exceptional circumstances not present in this case.”
The Supreme Court's full opinion is Estrellita S. Ada v. Patrick M. Calvo, 2012 MP 11, and can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme_12.htm. (NMI Judiciary)