In a recent case, a Virginia Circuit Court answered the question of whether a clause regulating the introduction of the parties’ romantic partners to their child may be deemed unenforceable. Here, the parties entered into a property settlement agreement with a provision dictating when the parties can introduce their romantic partners to their child. The court ultimately decided that the provision was unduly vague and asked the court to unreasonably limit the freedom of association and speech of the parties interacting with their child, and was unenforceable.
Powell v. Knoepfler-Powell
In Powell v. Knoepfler-Powell, Michael Powell and Melanie Knoepfler-Powell entered into a property settlement agreement during divorce proceedings (“PSA”). The PSA included a provision that the parties are to exercise “great care prior to introducing” their “boyfriends or girlfriends with whom they may have a romantic relationship” to their child. During a proceeding to modify the parties’ child custody and support order, the court was tasked with determining if this provision was enforceable.
The court here noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right of privacy includes a guarantee of the freedom to associate in several types of intimate relationships. The court explained that while parties commonly voluntarily enter into a mutual agreement as to whom they may introduce or what they may say to their child, it is “less clear . . . to what extent it is appropriate for a court to restrain the associations or speech of a parent in the context of what is in the best interests of a child.
“Under the Virginia Code, the court is to consider the best interests of subject children in application of a number of listed factors “for purposes of determining custody or visitation arrangements,” which allow the Court “to a limited extent to regulate associations and speech when harmful to the child.” However, the court clarified that “what the Court does in response to troubling parental conduct must be distinguished from the regulation of a parent’s conduct which has done her child no wrong.”
The court found that the provision “great care prior to introducing” their romantic “boyfriends or girlfriends” to their child suggests an uncertain degree of selectivity with whom the parties may associate in the presence of the child. The court noted that “great care” to one parent may mean “less care” to another. Since the provision is not defined more clearly, each party is essentially “arbitrarily” left to interpret the standard for themselves. The court ultimately found that the restriction “is hopelessly vague, unenforceable, and shall not be included in the Court’s revised custodial order.” The court also held that the provision is void as against public policy, because it asks the court “to unreasonably limit the freedom of association and speech of the parties interacting with their child into and throughout her adulthood.”
Spouses often enter into property settlement agreements during divorce proceedings. These agreements address financial matters, such as the dividing of assets after divorce, and often also include childcare provisions if the couple has minor children. The PSA here included a childcare provision limiting the parties from introducing new romantic partners to their child. Similar provisions are somewhat common and are not altogether unenforceable. However, the court here determined this provision was unenforceable because it was too vague. The provision instructed parties to take “great care” before introducing their child to romantic partners, without further defining this standard. The court ultimately found that the “great care” standard was overly vague and would result in the parties arbitrarily interpreting the provision individually.
The court did not discuss what changes, if any, would have made the provision enforceable, so there isn’t a clear-cut rule to take away informing those who would like similar provisions. The court noted hesitancy in limiting “the freedom to associate in several types of intimate relationships” stating that it’s not clear when it’s appropriate for a court to restrain the associations or speech of a parent in the context of what is in the best interests of a child. However, similarly vague provisions are likely to also be unenforceable. Parents interested in utilizing similar provisions should aim to include a more defined standard, such as a time frame before the introduction or a requirement that the romantic partner must be first introduced to the other parent.
For more guidance on property settlement agreements and related custody matters, contact General Counsel, P.C. or send an email to email@example.com. Custody and related matters can be complex and because of their importance, it is beneficial to consult with an attorney experienced in family law matters. Our family law attorneys are well versed in custody and visitation matters, as well as drafting and litigating property settlement agreements and can help you navigate the process and protect your rights. Call us today at 703-991-7973 and see how we can help you.
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