Property division in Missouri divorce is final and cannot be modified

Recent Case: Division of Property is final and non-modifiable in divorce proceedings. Statute enacted after the end of divorce case does not apply retroactively.

In a recent case from the Missouri Court of Appeals, Wife appeals the trial court’s determination that her agreement to turn over her survivor interest in her former husband’s (“Father”) pension benefits to his sons from his first marriage was enforceable. As part of their dissolution settlement, Father and Wife agreed that, should Father predecease Wife, she would pay over any survivor benefits from Father’s pension to Father’s sons. The dissolution court approved the separation agreement and made it a part of the judgment dissolving the marriage. Upon Father’s passing, the sons requested that Wife turn over the benefits she was receiving. When she declined, the sons filed suit. Wife argued that: (1) the separation agreement was invalid and unenforceable because Missouri statutes do not allow the transfer of pension survivor benefits and because the transfer of benefits is against public policy; and (2) the dissolution court lacked authority to enforce such an assignment. The trial court determined that the agreement was enforceable, and ordered Wife to turn over any benefits she receives.

1. When a dissolution court finds a separation agreement to be fair, the terms of the separation agreement are binding on the trial court. The court does not retain the power to modify the terms of the separation agreement that is incorporated into a judgment and decree of dissolution.

2. Res judicata, or claim preclusion, precludes the parties from later bringing claims arising from the same set of facts that could or should have been pursued in the prior action, and unequivocally applies to a defense that a defendant failed to raise in the prior action.

3. If Wife believed that the agreement to pay over the survivor benefits to the sons was contrary to a statute that bans such assignments, her remedy was to appeal the judgment, not challenge the judgment in a proceeding, many years later.

4. Res judicata also applies to Wife’s claim that a subsequently enacted statute bars the assignment of the survivor benefits, because the law bars the retrospective application of statutes to cases that have achieved final resolution.

5. Subject matter jurisdiction is conveyed by the constitution, not statutes, and under the constitution, the dissolution court had jurisdiction over Wife and Father’s dissolution proceeding. Thus, even if the dissolution court did not have statutory authority to order Wife to pay over the survivor benefits, it still had subject matter jurisdiction over the case. So long as the dissolution court had subject matter jurisdiction over the proceeding, its judgment is not subject to collateral attack from a party to the judgment.


September 1, 2015

Western District