Nichols v. Nichols
In Nichols v. Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d 96, 103, 469 N.W.2d 619 (1991)the Court applied the estoppel doctrine to prohibit the payee spouse from requesting a modification of the amount of maintenance when the parties' stipulation prohibited the modification. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 106-07.
The stipulated divorce judgment provided that the former husband pay a certain sum "to be considered as permanent and in lieu of any further or additional maintenance payments," except that it would terminate upon the wife's remarriage. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 101.
The court recognized "that enforcing provisions which provide that maintenance is not subject to modification may result in financial hardship." Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 115.
Nonetheless, a stipulation that was fair and reasonable under the circumstances existing at the time of the divorce hearing is not unfair or against public policy simply because it may result in subsequent financial hardship. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 115-16.
Accordingly, a stipulated divorce judgment that provides that the amount of maintenance cannot be modified is not against public policy. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 108.
"We determine whether a stipulation is fair, equitable, and not against public policy by taking into account the circumstances which existed at the time the stipulation was incorporated into the divorce judgment." Id.
"We examine the settlement as a whole." Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 111.
In evaluating public policy considerations, the Nichols court noted that fairness requires both payors and payees of maintenance to bear the risks of future financial setbacks.
It concluded that allowing the payee spouse to seek relief from the stipulation would not be fair because a payor spouse could not seek relief from nonmodifiable maintenance on the ground of financial hardship arising after the divorce. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 111.
Nichols noted that applying the doctrine of equitable estoppel was consistent with the public policy of this state to encourage settlement of divorce cases and promote finality. See Nichols, 162 Wis. 2d at 115.
In Nichols v Nichols, the Wisconsin Supreme Court considered if a divorce judgment could preclude modification of spousal maintenance, notwithstanding the Wisconsin statute providing that maintenance was always subject to modification upon a showing of the requisite change in circumstances. Id., 100, 103; Wis Stat 767.32(1) and 767.08(2)(b). Section 767.32(1) provided, in relevant part, that "after a judgment providing for . . . maintenance payments . . the court may, from time to time, . . . revise and alter such judgment respecting the amount of such maintenance . . . and the payment thereof." Section 767.08(2)(b) provided that "the amount [of alimony or child support] so ordered to be paid may be changed or modified by the court upon notice of motion or order to show cause by either party upon sufficient evidence." Nichols, supra, 103, n 4.
The court held that the maintenance statutes did not nullify the parties agreement to waive future modification:
Contrary to [the wife's] assertion, refusing to modify maintenance in this case does not nullify secs. 767.32(1) and 767.08(2)(b), Stats. If the legislature intended to prevent parties from entering into nonmodifiable maintenance agreements, it would have expressly prohibited such agreements. Historically, the legislature has explicitly stated when the terms of a statute may not be modified by contract. [Nichols, supra, 106.]