When Can a Florida Judge Modify a Marital Settlement Agreement?
Many Florida divorce cases ended in a negotiated marital settlement agreement (MSA) between the parties. A well-drafted MSA covers all areas of the couple’s separation, including the division of assets, alimony, and time-sharing with any children. Once a judge approves the MSA, it comes part of the legally binding divorce decree.
Of course, it is one thing to sign an agreement and get a judge to sign-off on it. It is quite another to actually enforce the terms of the deal as written. When one or both parties fail to follow the terms of an MSA, they may find themselves back in court, either seeking to hold the other former spouse in contempt, or even asking the judge to modify the terms of the MSA to reflect a changed reality.
Appeals Court: Trial Court Failed to Make Necessary Findings Before Modifying Divorce Agreement
There are strict rules a judge must adhere to before allowing such modifications. A recent decision from the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal, Suarez v. Suarez, illustrates what happens when a judge does not follow the rules. This case involves a divorced couple who previously entered into an MSA. Among other things, the MSA provided the former wife would pay the former husband alimony. The agreement also specified the parties would spend “equal amounts of time” with their children. The former wife would also be responsible for most childcare expenses.
Sometime after the divorce became final, the former wife returned to court, asking a judge to hold the husband in contempt for failing to follow the MSA’s provisions regarding the division of assets. In response, the former husband claimed the former wife was in contempt for failing to follow the agreement herself. The former wife then asked the court to modify the MSA with respect to alimony, child support, and timesharing.
Basically, the former wife told the court she could no longer pay alimony due to the decline of her business. As for timesharing, the former wife said the former husband never honored the equal-time arrangement, as he spent most of his time working. She therefore wanted the court to modify the timesharing portion of the MSA to “reflect the couple’s actual practice.” The former wife also wanted reimbursement for the former husband’s share of certain childcare expenses they agreed to split.
The trial court ended up granting the former wife’s modification requests. The former husband appealed. The Fourth District sided with the former husband, finding the trial judge made several errors in his ruling.
First, the appeals court said the trial judge was legally required to consider a number of factors before deciding to modify the MSA’s alimony award. But the judge only considered one of these factors, namely the former wife’s decline in income. Second, the trial court failed to make a finding that modifying the timesharing agreement, even to reflect “actual practice,” would be in the “best interest of the children.” Finally, the trial court used an incorrect method to calculate the former husband’s child support obligations. All of this required returning the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Speak with a Florida Divorce & Family Law Attorney Today
There are many reasons why you might seek to modify an existing divorce settlement. An experienced Boca Raton modification lawyer can assist you in navigating the legal process. Contact WiseLieberman, PLLC, to schedule a consultation with a member of our family law team today.