Florida Court Addresses Construction of Marital Settlement Agreements

In many divorce cases, one of the biggest issues is how marital property, including retirement income, should be divided. As such, many couples will develop marital settlement agreements defining their rights and obligations with regard to retirement. If the terms of such agreements are unclear, however, it could create challenges down the road, as demonstrated in a recent Florida divorce action in which the court discussed the construction of marital settlement agreements. If you need help protecting your interests in a divorce proceeding, it is advisable to confer with a Miami divorce attorney.

Factual Background and Procedural Setting

It is reported that in 2001, the husband petitioned for dissolution of marriage from the wife. They subsequently entered into a marital settlement agreement (MSA) to resolve their marital issues, which was incorporated into the Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage in 2002. Twenty years later, the wife moved to reopen the dissolution and enforce a provision of the MSA regarding the distribution of retirement benefits.

Allegedly, the disputed provision, labeled “Personal Property,” outlined the distribution of the husband’s retirement benefits from his 457 plan with Pinellas County, Florida, and the Florida Retirement System (FRS) pension. The wife argued that she was entitled to half of all FRS benefits received by the husband, including those accrued after the dissolution, based on the language of the MSA. The husband, however, contended that the provision only entitled the wife to half of the marital portion of the FRS benefits, which included benefits accrued during the marriage. The trial court determined that the language of the MSA was clear but interpreted it to mean that the wife was entitled to half of what the husband had at the time of the agreement. The wife appealed.

Construction of Marital Settlement Agreements

On appeal, the court reversed the trial court ruling. In doing so, the court acknowledged that an MSA is construed like any other contract and that clear and unambiguous terms are interpreted based on their plain meaning. However, if a contract’s terms are incomplete or ambiguous, parol evidence may be considered to interpret the agreement properly. In this case, neither party raised the issue of ambiguity before the trial court, nor did they argue for the consideration of parol evidence.

The court then analyzed two prior cases where the courts upheld the terms of the MSAs over statutory provisions. In both cases, the courts concluded that the unambiguous language of the MSAs controlled over statutory definitions. Applying this precedent, the court determined that the provision of the MSA in question unambiguously entitled the wife to half of all FRS benefits received by the husband, including those accrued after the marriage.

As such, the court held that the trial court’s reliance on statutory provisions in interpreting the MSA was erroneous. The terms of the MSA, which clearly stipulated an equal distribution of FRS benefits, superseded statutory definitions. Consequently, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision.

Talk to a Dedicated Miami Attorney

Ending a marriage can greatly impact a person’s economic health. If you have questions about the financial implications of divorce, it is smart to talk to a lawyer. The dedicated Miami divorce attorneys of the Law Offices of Sandy T. Fox, P.A. inform you of your options and aid you in seeking a just outcome. You can reach us at 800-596-0579 or use the form online to set up a conference.