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Wife’s relationship with boyfriend was not marriage

Where the parties’ settlement agreement provided that wife would no longer get a portion of husband’s retirement benefits if she remarried, her relationship with her boyfriend was not a “marriage” as defined by the settlement agreement. 

‘Marriage’ defined

“Agreements between spouses regarding support or property settlement are governed by the rules of construction generally applicable to contracts. …

“[T]he parties’ agreement provides that ‘marriage’ is considered to be any formal union that contractually binds [the wife] in a similar legally binding relationship (“‘wedding,” “civil union,” “[h]and-fasting,”’ etc).

“The phrase ‘that contractually binds’ is a modifier of ‘any formal union.’ It follows that ‘in a similarly legally binding relationship’ modifies the phrase ‘that contractually binds.’

“Therefore, the contract unambiguously defines marriage as a formal union that creates a contractual obligation, and that contractual obligation must be ‘a similarly legally binding relationship’ to marriage. …

“The husband disagrees with this interpretation and emphasizes the parenthetical, which simply lists ‘wedding,’ ‘civil union,’ ‘[h]and-fasting,’ etc. He contends that the parenthetical controls the construction of the definition of marriage under the contract. 

“Although true that ‘no part’ of a contract ‘should be discarded as superfluous or meaningless,’ the husband’s ‘implausible interpretation’ is not ‘the only one that saves the parenthetical from being wasted ink.’ …

“The parties agree that by definition, without more, the terms in the parenthetical cannot be examples of legally binding relationships. A wedding, civil union, or handfasting describes different forms of unions, but each would need some sort of formal recognition by the state in order to be legally binding. …

“The only logical conclusion is that the terms in the parenthetical are examples of ‘formal unions.’

“Under the plain language of the parties’ agreement, for the wife to no longer be entitled to her share of the husband’s retirement, she must enter into a formal union that creates a contractual obligation for her, and that contractual obligation must be ‘a similarly legally binding relationship’ to marriage. Any other reading of the agreement ‘would give its language a strained and distorted meaning.’”

Application

“Looking at the record with this contractual definition of marriage in mind, it contains extensive evidence about the wife’s relationship with her paramour. The wife testified that she and her boyfriend were in a long-term monogamous relationship. 

“According to the wife, they shared a bedroom in a home they owned together, maintained a joint bank account, divided household chores, and vacationed together. The wife gave her paramour two neck collars that represented their ‘dominant/submissive relationship.’

“Reviewing this record in the light most favorable to the husband, the evidence does not show that the wife entered into a formal union that contractually bound her in a ‘legally binding’ relationship similar to marriage. 

“Consequently, the circuit court correctly concluded that the husband did not establish that the wife had remarried as contemplated under the parties’ agreement. 

“The husband’s argument erroneously divides the marital agreement’s definition of marriage into three segments. 

“First, the husband suggests that the wife had a formal union with her paramour, as ‘symbolized by the worn collar.’ 

“Second, he contends that her ‘union’ contractually bound her because she and her paramour ‘negotiated the terms of the relationship.’ 

“Third, the husband posits that their relationship was legally binding because they intermingled their finances and jointly owned property. 

“However, the parties’ agreement does not segment the definition of marriage into three separate components. Instead, it provides in a single sentence that marriage is ‘any formal union that contractually binds [the wife] in a similar legally binding relationship.’ (Emphases added). 

“The arrangement between the wife and her paramour about their dominant and submissive roles in the relationship is quite simply not contractually binding, much less contractually binding in a legally binding relationship similar to marriage.

“For these reasons, the circuit court correctly interpreted the contractual definition of marriage at issue and concluded that the husband did not establish that the wife had entered into a marriage as contemplated under the parties’ agreement. As a result, the court appropriately granted [wife’s] motion to strike.”

Affirmed.

Hansen v. Hansen, Record No. 1128-21-1, June 28, 2022. CAV (Decker) From the Circuit Court of the City of Chesapeake (Banks Jr.) John K. Cottrell for appellant. Christopher T. Holinger, Mary T. Morgan for appellee. VLW 022-7-223, 8 pp. Unpublished opinion.

VLW 022-7-223

Virginia Lawyers Weekly