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Domestic Relations – Separation Agreement – Reconciliation Claim – Unconscionability

After the parties’ separation, the defendant-wife moved back in to the marital residence. However, the plaintiff-husband’s testimony – that he allowed her back in despite her drug addiction because she had nowhere else to go and that they did not share a bedroom – supports the trial court’s conclusion that the parties did not reconcile.

We affirm the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to set aside the parties’ separation agreement.

Jurisdiction

Although the trial court’s order refusing to set aside the separation agreement leaves other issues to be determined, since the interests addressed in the separation agreement – child custody, division of marital property acquired over 16 years, and spousal support – are substantial rights, and since the trial court’s determination of the validity and enforceability of the separation agreement directly affects those rights in this action, the trial court’s order is immediately appealable.

Separation

Even though there was evidence to the contrary, the trial court heard competent evidence that tended to show that defendant moved out of the marital residence immediately after the execution of the separation agreement with no intention of returning. This evidence supports the trial court’s finding that the parties separated at the time of the signing of the separation agreement.

Defendant moved back to the marital residence a few weeks after the parties signed the separation agreement, and she lived there for more than a year. Plaintiff changed the locks when defendant was arrested for felonious hit and run.

While defendant contends that the parties had reconciled, plaintiff testified that he only allowed defendant to return to the marital home because she had nowhere else to go and that the parties did not share a bedroom after defendant’s return. Competent evidence thus supports the trial court’s finding that the parties did not reconcile after defendant moved back to the marital residence.

Unconscionability

Defendant admitted that she had been addicted to opiates, but she indicated that she had begun suboxone treatment prior to the preparation of the separation agreement. She insisted she was not under the influence of pain medication when she signed the agreement and that she understood what she was signing. We accept that defendant understood what the separation agreement terms meant.

The trial court found that defendant signed the separation agreement after reviewing it at plaintiff’s attorney’s office. The trial court heard competent evidence that defendant read the agreement, declined plaintiff’s offer to pay for an attorney to represent her, and that she knew what the separation agreement contained and put in effect. Through plaintiff’s testimony, and corroboration by defendant’s own admission, the parties had been in separation negotiations for weeks prior to the execution of the separation agreement.

The trial court made the conclusion of law that defendant “failed to show by the preponderance of the evidence, that . . . the separation agreement was signed as a result of coercion, duress or undue influence or inadequate disclosure; or that the terms of the separation agreement are unconscionable.” The trial court’s conclusion of law is supported findings of fact that are supported by competent evidence. We hold there was no procedural unconscionability, including lack of capacity, duress, or inadequate disclosure present at the execution of the separation agreement.

Finally, the trial court heard evidence that defendant willingly and voluntarily signed the separation agreement. Defendant received visitation rights to the minor children, beneficiary status under plaintiff’s life insurance policy, health insurance, and any personal property she wanted from the marital residence. The trial court’s findings were supported by competent evidence, and it is not this court’s role to reweigh the value of the contract’s substantive terms. Accordingly, we hold that the separation agreement was not substantively unconscionable.

Affirmed.

Johnson v. Johnson (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-187-18, 18 pp.) (Philip Berger Jr., J.) Appealed from Iredell County District Court (Deborah Brown, J.) Evan Horwitz and Jeffrey Russell for plaintiff; Leah Gains Messick and Christina Clodfelter for defendant. N.C. App.

 


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