Is a Divorce Settlement Binding If I Did Not Agree to All of Its Terms?
Many Florida divorce cases are resolved by a marital settlement agreement (MSA). This is a legally binding contract between the parties that addresses issues such as the division of marital assets and liabilities and whether either spouse is entitled to alimony. As with any contract, an MSA only exists when there is “mutual assent” between the parties. That is to say, both spouses must agree on the key terms before a legally enforceable contract exists.
Florida Court Finds No Settlement Agreement Formed Due to Wife’s “Counteroffer”
A recent decision from the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal, Romaine v. Romaine, illustrates the critical importance of this “meeting of the minds.” This case involves a couple that married in 1998 and had three children. The wife filed for divorce in April 2016. After what the Fifth District described as “contentious” litigation, the parties “negotiated the terms of a possible settlement agreement.”
The husband sent the wife an email in which he outlined his proposed terms for the MSA. The wife consulted with her divorce attorney and signed the agreement–but only after adding “five handwritten statements” to the terms outlined in the husband’s email.
The wife later asked the court to order the husband to make additional financial disclosures. The husband replied with a motion to enforce what he considered a legally binding MSA. The judge sided with the husband and entered a final judgment of divorce that incorporated the terms of the MSA, as originally proposed by the husband.
The Fifth District said that was a mistake. In any contract negotiation, there must be “an offer and an acceptance supported by valid consideration.” In this context, that meant the wife had to accept all of the “essential terms” proposed by the husband before any contract could be formed. But as noted above, the wife made several “handwritten alterations” to the husband’s proposal. This was not an acceptance, the Fifth District explained, but a “counteroffer.” So while the appeals court affirmed the judgment of divorce itself, it reversed the decision to enforce the terms of the MSA.
Get Help Resolving Your Florida Divorce Case
When it comes to negotiating a marital settlement agreement, it is essential for both parties to be on the same page. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reach an agreement. There is the traditional approach of having each party work with an attorney to negotiate a deal. In many cases, Florida courts will require the parties to undergo mediation–a private process where the spouses work with a neutral third-party to come up with a valid agreement. You can also take advantage of Florida’s collaborative law process, where the parties work with specially trained family law attorneys to reach a settlement without the need for protracted litigation.
Whatever option is best for you and your situation, it is best to speak with a qualified Boca Raton divorce lawyer first. Contact WiseLieberman, PLLC, at 561-488-7788 today to speak with a member of our family law team.