The Finality of a Divorce Decree: The Limited Grounds for Challenging Decrees and Imposing Constructive Trusts
One of the most difficult legal challenges in the realm of family law is reopening a divorce decree. Generally, the law favors the finality of judgments; however, the Divorce Code outlines certain extraordinary circumstances upon which a decree may be vacated or reopened.
The Divorce Code provides some clear direction with respect to the statute of limitations for challenging a decree and the limited grounds upon which the decree can be challenged.
The most common ground upon which a decree is challenged is fraud. If a party wishes to challenge a decree related to fraud, it must first be determined whether the fraud complained of is intrinsic fraud or extrinsic fraud. Intrinsic fraud relates to a matter adjudicated by the judgement (including perjury, false testimony and false pleadings). Extrinsic fraud relates to matters collateral to the judgement which have the consequence of precluding a fair heading or presentation of one side of a case. Examples of extrinsic fraud include, but are not limited to: jurisdiction acquired by fraud, abuse and harassment of a party such that they are scared to litigate, and coercion.
A claim for intrinsic fraud must be brought within thirty (30) days of the entry of the divorce decree.
A claim for extrinsic fraud must be brought within five (5) years of the entry of the divorce decree.
As an ancillary issue, if the property related order or agreement which was incorporated into the decree includes language describing “full and fair disclosure”, there is a presumption that there was full and fair disclosure which must be rebutted through an assertion of fraud or misrepresentation. The elements of fraud must be plead with specificity and then proven with clear and convincing evidence.
A claim relating to the discovery of new evidence, including new valuations, undisclosed assets and the like must be brought within thirty (30) days of the entry of the divorce decree.
Lack of Jurisdiction Over The Subject Matter:
A claim relating to lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of the divorce must be brought within five (5) years of the entry of the divorce decree.
Fatal Defect Apparent Upon the Face of the Record:
A claim related to a fatal defect (including, but not limited to: failure to establish proper venue or to serve opposing party with the notice of intention to request the decree) apparent upon the face of the record must be brought within five (5) years of the entry of the divorce decree.
Alternative to Reopening A Decree – Constructive Trust:
If the reason a party wishes to vacate or reopen a decree is due to an undisclosed asset (valued at $1,000 or more), but the timing or other details prevent a party from seeking to reopen a decree, a constructive trust may be an alternative option.
A request to impose a constructive trust may be brought at any time. Further, it is not necessary that the failure to disclose the asset have been deliberate or intentional by the party who failed to disclose.
The cause of action relative to constructive trusts is separate from the cause of action relative to vacating or reopening a divorce decree.
If you believe you may have grounds to vacate or reopen your divorce decree or seek a constructive trust, it is important you speak to an experienced family law lawyer to understand your risks, rights and obligations under these circumstances.