Before the court for decision is respondent's motion to dismiss petitioner's complaint for specific performance of certain provisions of a separation agreement relating to property. The parties differ as to whether this statutory court has jurisdiction to construe and enforce an agreement between persons formerly spouses dealing with matters other than support.
The parties, following their separation, entered into a written separation agreement. Paragraphs 3 and 19 of the agreement treat disposition of the former marital residence and other personal property. Only these provisions are in issue. Most importantly, even though not now in issue, paragraph 8 of the agreement prescribes petitioner's obligation to furnish child support. When the couple were divorced the agreement was not merged or incorporated into the decree. Neither party requested retention of jurisdiction for ancillary relief since those matters, normally resolved in ancillary proceedings, were resolved by the agreement. After petitioner filed suit for specific performance of the agreement, respondent moved to dismiss the petition alleging that Family Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to enforce those portions of an agreement concerned exclusively with property disposition.
The Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. State ex rel. Colatriano v. Colatriano, Del.Super., 301 A.2d 531 (1972). This principle was clearly enunciated for this court in Rosemary K. v. Kevin D.C., Del.Fam., 422 A.2d 1272, 1274 (1980):
Thus, any analysis of the court's jurisdiction must begin with a specific statute, here 13 Del.C. § 507.
The original statute, 59 Del.Laws, c. 567, became effective on July 29, 1974, adding sections 501-507, 511-516 and 521-524, with section 507 reading as follows:
The statutory preamble has some bearing on the issue to be addressed:
In T. v. T., No. 75-07-860 (Del.Fam. Aug. 28, 1975), it was held that this court did not have jurisdiction to enforce a separation agreement once the parties were divorced. This particular anomaly (i. e. that Family Court had jurisdiction to enforce separation agreements only until the parties were divorced) was resolved when the legislature passed, and the governor approved, 60 Del. Laws, c. 455, effective June 11, 1976, reading as follows:
Resolution of the present controversy depends upon proper interpretation of the above language. The statutory synopsis is useful:
Unfortunately, the statutory language is not free from ambiguity. Several possible interpretations might be suggested: (1) That the court only has the power to construe and enforce the support provisions of the prescribed agreements; (2) that the court has power to construe and enforce all provisions of such agreements provided a provision in the agreement for support is in issue; or (3) that the court has power to construe and enforce all provisions of such
Specifically, the legislature vested in Family Court power to construe and enforce agreements "relating to payments for support" between certain parties. Nowhere in the statute is there any indication of intention to limit the court's jurisdiction to contractual support obligations. Such a reading would give no meaning at all to "relating to", a phrase which is repeated several times in the statute. Spousal and other "family" type agreements inevitably encompass all aspects of the parties' rights, privileges and obligations, and the resulting document should logically be construed and enforced as a whole. The court cannot read the document with tunnel vision, pretending that property disposition has no relationship whatever to the support provisions. An expansive approach to reading the statute is in keeping with the broad equitable authority vested in the Family Court by 10 Del.C. § 925(15):
While I recognize that our jurisdiction is limited and is a creature of statute, it would appear that the pertinent language of section 507 is sufficiently broad to encompass the present action, particularly when it is read in conjunction with section 925 and in light of the broad general interpretation given the court's jurisdiction in prior cases. See, e. g. Wilderman v. Wilderman, Del. Supr., 330 A.2d 149 (1974), and Mount Pleasant School District v. Warder, Del.Super., 375 A.2d 478 (1977).
The reasoning in Jones v. Dickerson, Del. Ch., 330 A.2d 164 (1974), is most helpful. In that case defendant argued that Family Court lacked jurisdiction to enforce a support agreement related to an adult child. Despite the fact that no specific grant of jurisdiction exists in the statute the court stated at 167:
Certainly, it also "makes sense" to enforce property dispositions in this court as one aspect of an entire agreement which includes support. We are well acquainted with property disposition by virtue of our jurisdiction to "equitably divide, distribute and assign marital property" at the request of either party under 13 Del.C. § 1513.
Additionally, logic would dictate that actions dealing with spousal or "family" agreements should all be heard in a single court, preferably this court. Acceptance of respondent's contention would mean that support actions based on such agreements would be brought in the Family Court while disputes over property provisions of the same agreements would have to be brought in the Court of Chancery. The result would be a waste of judicial resources, inconvenience to litigants, delay and unwarranted expense.
The question sub judice is not one of first impression in this court. In A.G. and L., Nos. B-503, 489-79 (Del.Fam. Jan. 17, 1980), this court thoroughly reviewed 13 Del.C. § 507 and decisions based on it and concluded:
In accord with the conviction of the vice-chancellor that enforcement of agreements relating to property should be handled by Family Court, I take judicial notice of the pertinent records revealing that since 1974 parties have not brought such actions in the Court of Chancery. Other than Barrowcliff, reluctantly accepted for decision by the vice-chancellor, a survey of cases brought in Chancery Court in recent years reveals none based on separation agreements. On the other hand, without challenge except in A.G. and L., supra., the judges of this court have frequently construed and enforced property and other provisions not involved with support, in spousal or "family" agreements. Such contemporaneous and practical interpretation is recognized as a valid and important method of statutory construction. A. Southerland, Statutory Construction § 49.03 (4th Ed. 1972):
The practices of the local bar and the courts themselves amply demonstrate that this statute has been interpreted as conferring jurisdiction on this court over property disputes arising from spousal or "family" agreements. Reliance on such practice is a recognized and persuasive method of statutory construction.
This principle was applied in Abbott Supply Co. v. Schockley, Del.Supr., 128 A.2d 794 (1956), aff'd 135 A.2d 607 (1957). There the court dealt with a statute which did not contain an explicit provision dealing with the issue presented. As an aid to construing the statute the court looked to "the accepted law and practice in Sussex County", remarking at 620: Such a generally accepted construction by the bench and bar of Sussex County constitutes a sound basis for the holding below."
I hold that by virtue of 13 Del.C. § 507, the Family Court has jurisdiction to construe and enforce the support and/or property and/or other provisions of agreements relating to payments for support between spouses, between persons formerly spouses, between parents and children, and between parents and children's spouses or former spouses. The support need not be for the benefit of a contracting party but may be for the benefit of some other person
IT IS SO ORDERED.