Johnston v. Johnston
297 Md. 48, 465 A.2d 436 (1983)

  • Mr. Johnston and Mrs. Johnston were married for over 20 years and had 4 children. But things turned sour and they decided to separate.
  • The Johnstons each got a lawyer, and sat down and negotiated a separation agreement.
    • The separation agreement was a contract that divided property, provided Mrs. Johnston with spousal support, etc.
  • The Johnstons then filed for divorce and requested that the separation agreement be incorporated by reference into the divorce decree.
    • The separation agreement explicitly said that it was to be incorporated, but not merged, with the divorce decree.
      • Basically, that means that the separation agreement was not formally part of the divorce decree, but it was its own separate contract.
      • The separation agreement explicitly said that it could not be modified, even if there was a material change in circumstances.
  • The Court approved the divorce, incorporated the separation agreement, and everybody walked away happy.
  • Eight years later, Mr. Johnston came back to Court and asked for the separation agreement to be declared void.
    • Mr. Johnston argued that he had recently discovered that he was suffering from a mental defect during the separation, and so was not competent to sign a contract.
  • The Trial Court found for Mrs. Johnston. Mr. Johnston appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that under Maryland law (Md. Rule 625a), after 30 days, you could only challenge a divorce decree if there was fraud, mistake or irregularity. Therefore, it was too late for Mr. Johnston to challenge the decree.
      • Mr. Johnston argued none of these things.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Mr. Johnston appealed.
  • The Maryland Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The Maryland Supreme Court found that due to the non-merger clause, the separation agreement was separate from the divorce decree and so was not subject to the limitations of 625a.
    • However, the Court found that once the separation agreement was approved by the court and incorporated into a divorce decree, the validity of the separation agreement is established, and Mr. Johnston is prevented from attacking it due to res judicata.
    • Although courts can always modify a divorce degree as they see fit, they cannot not modify a separation agreement that isn’t merged, so Mr. Johnston was out of luck.
      • The separation agreement is a separate, enforceable private contract, and the courts cannot modify private contracts.
  • There are several advantages to having a separation agreement incorporated but not merged:
    • The court cannot modify the agreement sua sponte.
    • The agreement can be enforced through the contempt power of the court.
    • The agreement is entitled to res judicata.