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A separated couple’s reunion cannot void the terms of their original separation agreement in an action started after a second break-up, a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled. The focus of the court’s decision was what was going on in the parties’ minds when they entered into the agreement. The 4-3 majority said Sarah and Joseph Vaccarello intended their agreement to remain in effect eternally and so Sarah could not seek certain rights in a divorce action that she had promised not to. Writing for the majority in Vaccarello v. Vaccarello, Justice Sandra Schultz Newman said Sarah and Joseph were married in 1964 and were first separated in March 1981. That April, the parties signed a separation and property settlement agreement, which stated that the two “have decided to settle and finally determine for all time their mutual property rights, matters of alimony, support and inheritance.” According to the agreement, Sarah and Joseph agreed they would relinquish their rights to each other’s estates, that Sarah would retain general custody of their four children and that Joseph would be given reasonable visitation. Joseph promised to deed his right to the marital home to Sarah, but to continue to make monthly mortgage payments. The agreement also stipulated that neither party would seek alimony, counsel fees or equitable distribution of the marital property in a divorce action. “Further, the parties intended that the agreement was a full and complete settlement and release of any claims,” Newman said. Joseph moved back into the marital home in September 1981 and remained there until the parties separated again in August 1993. The next month, Sarah filed a complaint for divorce, seeking equitable distribution, alimony and counsel fees. Joseph used the April 1991 agreement as his defense against the claims. The Allegheny Common Pleas Court ruled the agreement was an enforceable post-nuptial agreement. The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order, finding that the agreement was a separation agreement, and the Vaccarellos’ reconciliation nullified it. As Justice Russell Nigro explained in his dissenting opinion, a post-nuptial agreement is generally a contract executed after a marriage that is meant to dictate property rights. A separation agreement is generally entered into by a husband and wife who are preparing to divorce and is intended to be contingent on their separation. Newman said whether an agreement should be characterized as post-nuptial or separation depended on the parties’ intentions when drafting it. Newman reached back to 1931 Supreme Court case law, In re Ray’s Estate, in which the justices decided a separation agreement prohibiting a wife from making any claims against her husband precluded her from asserting a claim to the husband’s estate after his death. The parties had reunited one week after signing the agreement. The agreement held that the husband would set up an $85,000 trust for his wife and their daughter. The supreme court said the husband’s intent to follow the agreement was evident in the fact that he transferred $85,000 to the trustee for his wife and daughter. “The words of the agreement, combined with the Ray’s complete execution of the terms relating to the creation and funding of the trust, indicated that the agreement accomplished its purpose of settling for all time the parties’ property rights,” Newman said of the Ray’s decision. In the Vaccarellos’ case, the trial court homed in on five key provisions in the agreement, including the introductory phrase that parties “have decided to settle for all times,” a sentence that the agreement is “a full and complete settlement and release of any and all claims” and the fact that it was binding on the heirs and executors of Sarah and Joseph. The trial court also relied on testimony from Sarah’s witness and from Joseph. Using Ray’s as a framework, the majority agreed that the Vaccarellos intended their agreement to be binding indefinitely. Newman said Joseph executed all of the terms of the agreement, including paying off Sarah’s car, providing child support payments, paying medical and life insurance, and making monthly mortgage payments. “Comparing the determination of the trial court with the factors considered in Ray’s Estate, we cannot say that the trial court erred in characterizing the agreement here as a property settlement agreement,” Newman said. The majority remanded the case to the Superior Court for a decision on whether Joseph made a full and fair disclosure of marital assets. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Stephen Zappala and Thomas Saylor, Nigro said he did not believe the Vaccarellos intended to enter into a post-nuptial agreement. He relied first on the title of the document, which said “separation and property settlement agreement,” rather than “post-nuptial agreement.” “We must presume that the attorney knew how to properly employ terms of art that have been used in this commonwealth for over half a century,” Nigro said. Nigro also noted that the agreement contained custody provisions, which lost their meaning when the parties resided together. “In light of these circumstances, I can reach no other conclusion but that the parties entered into this agreement dividing up their marital property and responsibilities in order to provide for the realistic finality and financial contingencies of divorce,” Nigro said. “In other words, in determining the intent of the parties, I do not believe the circumstances under which this agreement was created and executed and can be ignored.”

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