Marriage Settlement Agreements: An Avenue for Children to Enforce Their Parents’ Promises


Photo Credit: Brooke Lark on Unsplash

By Mariah Mandy, Staff Writer

Typically, parents are immune from being sued by their children.  Only in limited circumstances can children actually bring their parents to court. One of these narrow exceptions arises in an unlikely setting – the enforcement of marriage settlement agreements between divorced parents.

Marriage settlement agreements that are incorporated, but not merged into divorce decrees, are considered independent contracts and are therefore interpreted according to the law of contracts.[1] The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 302, which includes an analysis for distinguishing third-party beneficiaries.[2]

The Court synthesized § 302 into a two-part test: (1) the recognition of the beneficiary’s right must be appropriate to effectuate the intention of the parties, and (2) the performance must satisfy an obligation of the promisee to pay money to the beneficiary, or the circumstances must indicate that the promisee intends to give the beneficiary the benefit of the promised performance. [3] If a person satisfies this two-part test, then he or she is considered a third-party beneficiary to the contract. [4]

The Court noted that § 302 provides an analysis of third party beneficiaries which permits a properly restricted cause of action for this type of plaintiff. [5] In other words, third-party beneficiaries are permitted to intervene in contract enforcement.[6] This means third-party beneficiaries can enforce contracts in the form of marriage settlement agreements.

In one instance, the Pennsylvania Superior Court considered whether a son could enforce a marriage settlement agreement between his mother and father, where the father had agreed to pay for son’s college tuition.[7] Because the son directly received the benefit of his father’s money, the son was a third-party beneficiary.[8] Under Pennsylvania Law, a third-party beneficiary’s rights and limitations in a contract are the same as those of the original contracting parties.[9] Therefore, as an intervenor and third-party beneficiary to the marriage settlement agreement, the son could seek to enforce his parents’ marriage settlement agreement.[10]

Importantly, children cannot enforce marriage settlement agreements anytime money is owed to them. In Chen v. Chen, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held, despite their third-party beneficiary status, children could not enforce payment of child support.[11] Allowing children to sue for child support disfavors public policy, because it would open a Pandora’s Box and injure the parent-child relationship.

Moreover, the agreement did not provide that child support be paid directly to the child; the support was to be paid to the mother and used for the child’s expenses. Therefore, children are not permitted to seek the specific dollars one parent owes the other for the child’s generalized support pursuant to a separation agreement, absent a direct designation that a benefit be paid to the child.[12]

In conclusion, children are rarely allowed to sue their parent in court, but marriage settlement agreements serve as a narrow exception. Where the marriage settlement allocates money to be directly given to the child, the child may enforce the agreement. Thus, although the marriage has ended, the parental obligations still exist, and, moreover, are legally enforceable by the child.




[1] Nicholson v. Combs, 703 A.2d 407, 412 (Pa. 1997)

[2] Guy v. Liederbach, 459 A.2d 744, 751 (Pa. 1983).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See, Millinghausen v. Drake, 2014 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1222, at *15 (April 24, 2014); Scarpitti v. Weborg, 609 A.2d 147, 151 (Pa. 1992)

[7] Weber v. Weber, 168 A.3d 266, 268 (Pa. 2017)

[8] Id. at 270

[9] Id. at 271

[10] Id.

[11] 893 A.2d 87 (Pa. 2006)

[12] Id.

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