Court Examines Parol Evidence in Florida Family Law Cases

In many Florida divorces, the parties will draft a marital settlement agreement that sets forth the terms of the dissolution of their marriage. Such agreements are contracts and, like any other contract, are enforceable by the courts. The courts will typically look at the terms of the agreement to determine each party’s rights and obligations; when the terms of a marital settlement agreement are ambiguous, though, the court may need to consider outside evidence, as discussed in a recent Florida ruling issued in a divorce action. If you or your spouse intend to seek a divorce, it is wise to speak to a Miami divorce lawyer about what measures you can take to protect your rights.

Factual Background of the Case

It is reported that the parties were married and had two minor children during their marriage. They subsequently divorced, and the trial court entered a final dissolution judgment in 2001. The court orally entered the parties’ marital settlement agreement into the record and incorporated it as part of the final judgment. The judgment contained a provision related to child support that stated each party would pay half of each child’s college expenses.

Allegedly, the wife moved for enforcement of the judgment, arguing that the husband refused to pay half of the children’s college expenses. The husband sought discovery, but the wife objected to all of his requests. The husband filed a response in opposition to the wife’s motion, arguing that the phrase “college expenses” was latently ambiguous and, therefore, the court should consider parol evidence to determine the intent of the agreement. The trial court did not permit such evidence and entered a judgment against the husband. The husband appealed.

Parol Evidence in Florida Family Law Cases

On appeal, the husband argued that the trial court erred in refusing to allow him to introduce parol evidence to clarify the latent ambiguity of the phrase “college expenses” in the marital settlement agreement. The court explained that marital settlement agreements are contracts and therefore are generally interpreted as such.

This means, among other things, that the terms of a marital settlement agreement should be defined by their plain meaning. There are exceptions, though, for terms that are ambiguous or for other reasons need modification, clarification, or interpretation. The court elaborated that a term is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation, while a term is latently ambiguous if the language is clear, but it neglects to clarify the duties or rights of the parties.

In matters in which the court finds that a term is latently ambiguous, it must consider parol evidence. In the subject case, the court ultimately concluded that the phrase “college expenses” was unclear and did not address how they were to be paid or what happened if a third party paid on behalf of a parent. Thus, the court remanded the matter for the consideration of parol evidence.

Speak to a Skilled Miami Attorney

Parties in divorce actions are permitted to develop marital settlement agreements setting forth the terms of their dissolution, but they must do so with great care, otherwise, they may unintentionally impair their rights. If you need assistance with a divorce action, it is prudent to speak to an attorney about your options. The skilled Miami lawyers of the Law Offices of Sandy T. Fox, P.A. possess the knowledge and resources needed to help people protect their interests in divorce actions, and if you hire us, we will advocate tirelessly on your behalf.  We have an office in Aventura, and we frequently handle divorce actions in Miami. You can reach us through our online form or at 800-596-0579 to set up a conference.