The Importance of Clarity and a Lack of Ambiguity in Your Florida Marital Settlement Agreement

There are several things that are essential in order to make a proposed marital settlement agreement appropriate for you to sign. Any agreement should appropriately protect your interests. The agreement also, though, should be completely clear and unambiguous so that any disputes that arise later will not trigger a whole new round of discovery and litigation. For all of these things, rely upon a skilled Florida divorce attorney to help you get the marital settlement agreement you need.

The case of Michael and Regina was an example of what happens when a marital settlement agreement isn’t unambiguous. When the couple married in 1987, Michael was a seven-year veteran of a local police department in Broward County. In 1989, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office absorbed Michael’s employer. When that happened, the couple decided to cash out the husband’s pension and spend the money.

After becoming an employee of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the husband became eligible for an account with the Florida Retirement System. The FRS allowed some members, including this husband, to purchase service credit, which meant that the employee would be entitled to a larger benefit when he retired.

All of this pension program history proved to be very relevant after the couple divorced in 2013. As part of that divorce process, the couple went through mediation and arrived at a mediated marital settlement agreement. That document, when it came to distributing the husband’s retirement, stated that the couple agreed “that they will each retain any and all IRA/401K plans held in their individual names. Except that the husband has a FRS plan with BSO his employer. The wife is entitled to 50% of the marital portion of this plan … The marital portion is defined as the amount from the date of the marriage through the date of the filing of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.”

Seems straightforward and clear enough, doesn’t it? Except that it wasn’t. Upon close inspection, the Court of Appeal concluded that the agreement was unclear and ambiguous. The wife argued that the agreement clearly intended that the totality of the funds within the husband’s FRS account be split 50/50, which was a plausible interpretation (as indicated by the trial judge’s siding with the wife).

On the other hand, the agreement explicitly makes mention of a “marital portion” of the FRA account. That choice of language could reasonably be seen as proof that the spouses understood some part of the FRA account to be non-marital. This interpretation could conceivably back up the husband’s claim that some or all of the purchased service credits were non-marital assets and 100% his, as opposed to being subject to a 50/50 split.

When a settlement agreement can reasonably be interpreted in multiple different ways, that is absolute proof that it is ambiguous. When a portion of a marital settlement agreement is ambiguous, the trial court is required to hold an evidentiary hearing and allow the spouses to present proof to bolster their interpretations. Since there was no hearing like that in Michael and Regina’s case, the appeals court sent the case back to Broward County to give the spouses the opportunity to present evidence in support of their respective positions.

Sometimes, an agreement may be more ambiguous than it might initially seem on the surface. Getting a proper marital settlement agreement often involves having legal counsel who know how to “sweat the small stuff.” The diligent South Florida divorce attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. have been providing clients with the advice and representation needed for successful results for many years. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

What Happens When Your Florida Marital Settlement Agreement is Based, in Part, on an Incorrect Assumption?, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, May 16, 2018

The Importance of Negotiating a Favorable Florida Marital Settlement Agreement, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 12, 2017

When You Can Set Aside a Marital Settlement Agreement in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Aug. 12, 2015