In a recent case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals made clear that Karon waivers divest courts from jurisdiction over motions to modify spousal maintenance. Thus, in Gossman v. Gossman, A13-1095 (Minn. Ct. App. June 2, 2014), the court held that once an agreement includes a Karon waiver, any subsequent order that attempts to change spousal maintenance is void and unenforceable.

Specifics of the Case

In the Gossman case, the parties agreed that the ex-husband would pay his former spouse $5,000 per month for five years, and the district court would lack jurisdiction to modify that award. Nonetheless, the parties agreed to modify the maintenance award, and the district court, pursuant to their agreement, issued orders that stated that the maintenance award would be changed. The ex-wife later moved to vacate the modification orders; she wanted to enforce the original maintenance award. The Court of Appeals held that the motion to vacate the modification orders was correctly granted by the district court but that the district court should have also fully enforced the original maintenance award.

In this case, the ex-wife had been represented by counsel at the time of the divorce while the ex-husband was unrepresented. The parties’ marital termination agreement included a Karon waiver; that waiver stated “Except as provided above, neither party is awarded spousal maintenance (alimony) from the other past, present, or future, and that the same is hereby forever waived. The Court is divested of jurisdiction to modify the maintenance provisions herein.”

In approving the marital termination agreement, the district court specifically found that the written agreement disclosed the parties’ financial situations finally and that the agreement was fair and equitable and supported by adequate consideration.

Despite the parties’ agreement in this case, five months after the dissolution and degree, the parties agreed to reduce the ex-husband’s maintenance obligation by $1,600, to $3,400 per month. Neither party was represented by counsel, although the court opined that the stipulated order appeared to have been prepared by a legal professional.

About nine months later, the parties agreed to reduce the ex-husband’s spousal maintenance obligation by $1000, to $2,400 per month, although the order apparently was not entered due to inadvertence. Then, four months later, the parties agreed to reduce the ex-husband’s maintenance to $1,360 per month for seven months, and $1,160 for the remainder of the five years.

Change in Heart

About seven months later, the ex-wife moved to vacate the orders, asserting they were void because the original judgment and decree included a valid Karon waiver, so the district court did not have jurisdiction to modify the original award, even though the parties had agreed to the modifications. She asked for the original maintenance to be reinstated and for her ex-husband to pay the unpaid balance, which by then totaled $59,170.

Although by statute, each party has a right to seek modification of a spousal maintenance award at a future date, Minn. Stat. Section 518A.39, the courts are without jurisdiction to award a future modification if the parties have waived their rights to them. A valid Karon waiver must satisfy four factors: (1) there must be a contractual waiver of the parties’ rights to modify maintenance; (2) the agreement must expressly divest the district court of jurisdiction over maintenance modifications; (3) the agreement must be incorporated into the final judgment and decree; and (4) the court must find that the agreement is both fair and equitable and is supported by consideration and that the parties have fully disclosed their finances.

The court held that, because the Karon agreement divested the court of jurisdiction, the parties cannot modify the Karon agreement. The court stated, “II]f a district court has divested itself of jurisdiction over a particular matter, the district court’s jurisdiction may not be restored by the parties’ mutual agreement.”

The court also held that the district court was required to enforce the ex-husband’s maintenance obligation because failing to enforce the maintenance obligation was the same as modifying the original maintenance agreement. Thus, even though the ex-wife had agreed to reduced maintenance for an extended period of time, the court rejected the argument that she waived the right to collect the full amount of spousal maintenance. As a result, the ex-husband will now need to pay the balance of the original maintenance amount.

This case illustrates the importance of consulting with an experienced family law attorney before entering into an agreement to waive rights regarding maintenance.