Moot. Not Moo.

Maier v. Maier, 2020 VT 63

By Elizabeth Kruska 

This would be a very interesting legal question. Unfortunately, it became moot due to the death of a party, so we may never know the answer.

The parties were married, and Wife filed for divorce. At the time, Husband was not competent and was under a guardianship. The question then was whether she could dismiss the divorce, and also if the husband’s guardian could pursue a counterclaim for divorce.

Here’s what happened. Wife filed for divorce. Husband had a guardian. The parties negotiated a settlement and filed it with the court. But before the court could act on it, Wife filed a motion to withdraw the complaint and set aside the agreement. The court ended up having a hearing and denied her motion to dismiss.

Wife filed a request for interlocutory appeal, which was denied. She then filed that same request in the Supreme Court, and it was granted. Because of this, the trial court proceedings were put on hold while the Supreme Court set the matter for interlocutory appeal.

Quick pause – an interlocutory pause, if you will. An interlocutory appeal is one that happens in the middle of a case. These don’t happen often because SCOV generally only hears appeals of final orders. But, sometimes things happen in the middle of a case that could cause the matter to be disposed of fully at the trial court level. If such a ruling occurs, a party may seek permission to appeal that ruling to SCOV. The thought is that if, on appeal, SCOV agrees with the moving party, that it can have the effect of disposing of the case prior to it working its way to a final appealable order.

This said, this is discretionary, and doesn’t happen often. Courts don’t like to deal with cases on a piecemeal basis.

But here, since the issue was whether or not a case could be dismissed, that would be a dispositive issue.

Unfortunately, as noted above, while the interlocutory appeal was pending the husband died. The question of dismissal is moot because no divorce can be granted if one of the parties is no longer living.

The husband’s estate wanted the court to go forward. The parties had negotiated a settlement, which was on hold in the family court. The concern was that since the settlement hadn’t been considered and because the husband died while the appeal was pending, the parties haven’t had an opportunity to figure out whether the settlement agreement was enforceable in light of the husband’s death.

So, the Supreme Court actually sends this case back to the family court for the family court to determine whether or not the settlement agreement is enforceable. It could very well be the family court can’t do anything with it, and it might not even be the right court.