After spending more than two years on the lam, Merry Morris is in the Palm Beach County Jail, where she could remain indefinitely unless she pays her ex-husband $1.8 million for violating their postnuptial agreement.
In one of the most bizarre and complex divorce cases in recent memory, the 53-year-old former Boca Raton resident is in jail for violating court orders demanding that she pay up.
However, she claims she can't pay because all of her money is in an irrevocable trust in the Cook Islands. The trustee in the Polynesian island nation adamantly refuses to release the cash, saying he doesn't recognize orders of foreign courts.
"She's really between a rock and a hard place," her attorney Jeffrey Wasserman said last week. "I've spoken with the trustee, and he's not releasing the money. He's not going to obey court orders from the U.S. and he's not going to take direction from her if it's based on the court order."
Attorney Jeff Fisher, who represents Morris' ex-husband and wrote the unorthodox provision that helped put Morris behind bars, said he doubts Morris is helpless. The trustee who has given her money to buy cars, clothes and trips to exotic locales surely would give her the cash she needs to get out of jail, he said.
Leland Morris takes no joy in seeing his ex-wife locked up, he said.
"He doesn't need the money. He doesn't want the money," Fisher said of his client, who moved to Boca Raton from New York after making millions in the real estate industry. "He's consistently made it known that the money she owes can be paid at a substantial discount - not to him but to his children - contingent on her getting mental health treatment."
Wasserman agreed that negotiations are under way. But, he said, so far the money Leland Morris is demanding is more than Merry Morris is willing or able to pay.
The real problem, Fisher said, is that Merry Morris has repeatedly thumbed her nose at the judicial system, which is why she is spending 120 days in jail - a week of which was spent in solitary confinement after she was accused of assaulting a guard.
The convoluted case began before the couple divorced in 2001. Fearing his wife would flee with their son and daughter, Leland Morris asked Fisher to craft a fail-safe for him. In exchange for allowing him to be primary custodian for the children, he agreed to give her a $1.5 million bonus on top of the divorce settlement.
But there was a catch: If she contested any part of the postnuptial agreement, she would have to repay the bonus.
Two years later, she accused Leland of violating the agreement and asked that it be modified to accommodate her lifestyle.
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath ruled that her complaints constituted a challenge of the agreement. He ordered her to repay the $1.5 million and cover the $300,000 her ex-husband had accumulated in attorney fees.
When she refused to pay, Colbath held her in contempt.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to collect the money, Fisher filed a lawsuit to force her to sell her home to pay part of the money. After the suit was filed, Fisher said she borrowed about $450,000 against the house.
Circuit Judge Jonathan Gerber ordered her to return the money. When she didn't, he held her in criminal contempt. When she refused to appear in court to explain why she was disobeying his order, he slapped her with two additional criminal contempt charges and issued warrants for her arrest.
She avoided arrest by going underground, refusing to divulge where she was living. Then, in a surprise move in January, she appeared at the county jail, saying she wanted to turn herself in.
"She didn't want her kids to feel she had abandoned them," Wasserman said.
Gerber sentenced her to 120 days in jail for not obeying his order to return the money she borrowed against the house. In April, he is to consider what punishment, if any, she will receive for not appearing in court.
Circuit Judge Amy Smith, who inherited the divorce case from Colbath, is to decide what punishment Morris will receive for not repaying the $1.8 million.
Until she pays, it is likely she will remain in jail.
Like other judges who have considered cases involving money squirreled away in offshore accounts, Gerber said he believes Morris can get her hands on the money in the Cook Islands.
"You have been living somehow, some way over the last two years in different places around the world, one of them being Barcelona, Spain, and (have been) able to access that money when you've requested it," he said.
Wasserman and Fisher, both seasoned and respected divorce lawyers, said it's one of the strangest cases they've handled.
At one point, it was considered by the Florida Supreme Court. While two justices questioned whether the payback provision was even legal, they declined to rule on the case because Merry Morris was a fugitive.
The Morris children, who were the basis for the special clause, are barely an issue in the case any longer.
At 18, their son is an adult and can't be ordered to spend time with his mother.
Though the daughter is only 16, she, too, for all practical purposes is beyond the reach of the court, Wasserman said.
"This is sad," Wasserman said. "This is really, truly very sad."
Fisher agreed. But, he said, it's of Morris' own making.
"Our system, it's dispute resolution. If the loser doesn't do what the court orders them to do, then the courts' ability to resolve disputes disappears," he said. "It just does."
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