IN THE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS OF WEST
January 1998 Term
MARY LEANETTE WILLIAMS,
Plaintiff Below, Appellant ,
STEPHEN JAMES WILLIAMS,
Defendant Below, Appellee.
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Randolph
Honorable John L. Henning, Judge
Civil Action No. 93-C-409
REVERSED AND REMANDED
Submitted: January 20, 1998
Filed: February 25, 1998
Elkins, West Virginia Jory & Smith
Attorney for Appellant Elkins, West Virginia
Attorney for Appellee
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
SYLLABUS BY THE COURT
reviewing challenges to findings made by a family law master that
also were adopted by a circuit court, a three-pronged standard of
review is applied. Under these circumstances, a final equitable
distribution order is reviewed under an abuse of discretion
standard; the underlying factual findings are reviewed under a
clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law and statutory
interpretations are subject to a de novo review." Syl. Pt.
1, Burnside v. Burnside, 194 W.Va. 263, 460 S.E.2d 264
order directing a division of marital property in any way other
than equally must make specific reference to factors enumerated
in Sec. 48-2-32(c), and the facts in the record that support
application of those factors.' Syllabus Point 3, Somerville v.
Somerville, 179 W.Va. 386, 369 S.E.2d 459 (1988)." Syl.
Pt. 6, Wood v. Wood, 184 W.Va. 744, 403 S.E.2d 761 (1991).
property settlement agreements, when properly executed, are legal
and binding, this Court will not set aside such agreements on
allegations of duress and undue influence absent clear and
convincing proof of such claims." Syl. Pt. 2, Warner v.
Warner, 183 W.Va. 90, 394 S.E.2d 74 (1990).
footnote 1 1
was brought by Mary Leanette Williams, plaintiff/appellant,
assigning as error an order by the Circuit Court of Randolph
County requiring her to relinquish title to property held jointly
with her former spouse, Stephen James Williams,
footnote 2 2
This case stems from a divorce granted to the parties on December 13, 1993. The divorce was granted on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Neither party was represented by legal counsel during the divorce proceeding. The divorce decree incorporated a "settlement agreement" prepared and executed by the parties. The specific language at issue in this appeal relates to the parties' jointly held real estate. The settlement agreement which consisted of only three (3) paragraphs stated:
Complete custody of the children Oliver Jay Williams and Amy Darlene Williams will be in the care of their mother, Mary Leanette Williams, with their father Stephen James Williams
[having] visitation of every other week-end and for one month
during the summer vacation from school.
Williams will have control of the home and property to live in
with the children as long as she wants or needs the home and
property. If she moves to another location the home and property
goes back to Stephen James Williams.
Williams will pay child support to Mary Leanette Williams in the
sum of monthly for the two children. When each child turns 18
years old the child support will stop.
Stephen James Williams
Mary Leanette Williams
At some point
in 1995, Ms. Williams moved from the home. Mr. Williams
subsequently filed a motion requesting that Ms. Williams be
required to execute a deed conveying her undivided one-half (1/2)
interest in the real estate to him. The lower courts found that
by the terms of the settlement agreement, Ms. Williams had to
execute a deed conveying her interest in the home to Mr.
Williams. This appeal followed that determination.
The standard of review of this case involves the three pronged analysis set out in syllabus point 1 of Burnside v. Burnside, 194 W.Va. 263, 460 S.E.2d 264 (1995). In this
Court's examination of the settlement agreement between the
parties, we cannot discern any language in the agreement which
requires Ms. Williams, upon vacating the residence, to transfer
to Mr. Williams her interest in the family home and property.See footnote 3 3 A
settlement agreement entered into by the parties is binding. See
Syl. Pt. 2, Warner v. Warner, 183 W.Va. 90, 394 S.E.2d 74
(1990). The wording of the settlement agreement only permits
Mr. Williams to regain possession of the home and property, in
the event Ms. Williams moves from the residence. The circuit
court's order, in effect, permits Mr. Williams to modify the
language of the settlement agreement. This was error. The circuit
court's order also permits, without factual or legal
justification, an unequal distribution of marital property. This,
too, was error. See Syl. Pt. 6, Wood v. Wood, 184
W.Va. 744, 403 S.E.2d 761 (1991). The circuit court's order,
entered October 17, 1996, requiring Ms. Williams to relinquish
her one-half interest in the family home and property to Mr.
Williams, is reversed.See
footnote 4 4
Reversed and Remanded.
Footnote: 1 1 We point out that a per curiam opinion is not legal precedent. See Lieving v. Hadley, 188 W.Va. 197, 201 n.4, 423 S.E.2d 600, 604 n 4. (1992).
Footnote: 2 2 All other assignments of error by Ms. Williams are without merit.
Footnote: 3 3 During the July 3, 1996, hearing, Ms. Williams testified that she understood that if, and/or when, she vacated the former marital domicile, Mr. Williams would have the immediate right to occupy the home. Ms. Williams testified that she never intended, by execution of the settlement agreement to convey her one-half (1/2) interest in said real estate to Mr. Williams.
Footnote: 4 4 In the event Mr. Williams chooses to vacate the residence and the parties decide to sell, lease or rent the home, they are each entitled to one-half (1/2) of the proceeds therefrom.