While marital settlement agreements (MSAs) are unique in some ways, they are also a lot like any other contract in many ways. As you progress toward a final agreement, there are several checkboxes that must be checked. Does the agreement include everything you must have? Does the agreement contain none of the terms that you consider a “deal-breaker?” If yes, then you have the framework of a potentially workable agreement. Doing this, though, means taking ultimate care because, whatever happens later, you’ll still be bound by the terms of the MSA you signed. To make sure the MSA you’re signing is an MSA that is truly fair, get the legal representation you need from the right South Florida divorce attorney.
As an illustration of what we mean, there’s the recent case of M.J. and B.J. from the Tampa Bay area. The couple divorced after 26 years of marriage. Generally, in cases decided by a judge, a marriage of 26 years qualifies as a “long-term” marriage and the spouse who receives alimony is entitled to receive permanent alimony.
This husband avoided that outcome by working out an MSA with his wife that included an alimony provision. The agreement said that the husband would pay the wife, who was 54 years old at the time of the MSA’s signing, durational alimony of $4,500 per month for eight years. The agreement also stated that the duration of the alimony could not be changed later through a modification action. The contract said nothing about the wife getting a job during those eight years.
Unfortunately for the husband, he lost his job. As a result of that sudden and involuntary unemployment, he filed an action to modify his alimony obligation. The trial court ruled in favor of the husband, lowering his alimony obligation, in part, due to its decision to impute income to the wife. Specifically, the court imputed an income equivalent to the wife holding a minimum-wage job.
A judge can’t ‘rewrite’ your marital settlement agreement for you if it ‘turns out to be a bad bargain’
That ruling in favor of the husband got overturned on appeal. The problem for the husband was the MSA he signed all those years ago. The law in Florida says that, unless a contract is legally unenforceable, the courts are required to enforce the agreement as written. A judge may not “rewrite a contract to make it more reasonable for one of the parties or to relieve a party from what turns out to be a bad bargain.”
If a term is not included in “black and white,” then the law generally assumes that the parties excluded it intentionally. Here, M.J. and B.J’s agreement did not require the wife to support herself, to get a job or even to look for a job – it merely required her to refrain from remarrying, cohabiting or dying during the eight-year period. As long as that was true, she was entitled to keep receiving alimony for eight years, even if she had no job and had not lifted a finger to look for a job. If the husband wanted to be able to raise the issue of the wife’s failure to get a job or failure to look for a job at later court actions, the husband should have ensured that language imposing such an obligation on the wife was written into the MSA. It wasn’t, so she didn’t have any such requirement and the court was barred from imputing income to her.
There are many, many essential steps and potential pitfalls that go into negotiating and establishing a marital settlement agreement. To get an agreement that is fair and meets your needs, you need the right legal representation. Rely on the skilled South Florida divorce attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. for exactly that sort of useful advice and effective advocacy. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.