What Happens When There’s a Dispute About How to Interpret the Terms of My Florida Marital Settlement Agreement?

Marital settlement agreements (MSAs) can be wonderfully helpful tools for some divorcing couples in reducing the amount of time, stress and acrimony that can sometimes be involved in litigating issues before a judge. The key to resolving your issues by agreement, though, is to be sure that you fully understand everything in your agreement and that the agreement is a fair resolution. To aid in those goals, as well as all the other ones related to your case, be sure you have reliable South Florida family law counsel on your side.

For an example of how a seemingly straightforward MSA can eventually lead to considerable litigation, there’s the recent case of H.W. and D.W. As a bit of background, H.W. and D.W. had been married for 17+ years when they divorced in 2008. That meant that, under Florida law, theirs was a “long-term” marriage, which could potentially impact certain divorce-related things like alimony.

The couple, however, resolved alimony (among other things) through an MSA. The spouses signed not only an MSA, but also an addendum to that agreement. The documents required the husband to make monthly alimony payments to the wife of 30% of his income or $2,000, which ever was more. The agreement also required him to keep paying until she died, remarried or entered into a cohabitative relationship.

That agreement worked for a time, but the couple eventually ended up back in court in 2017. The wife accused the husband of paying less than what the agreements required. As part of her presentation to the judge, the wife brought in what the law calls “parol” evidence. In any kind of contract dispute, including a case regarding an MSA, the law says that the judge must look only at what the contract document (and addendum documents) say. Only if the contract is unclear or potentially ambiguous can you bring in outside (or “parol”) evidence.

H.W. and D.W.’s judge ruled for the husband and kept out the wife’s evidence. The wife appealed and that higher court ruled for her. The appeals court concluded that there was a problem with the MSA. Specifically, the paragraph that defined “gross income” for purposes of calculating alimony could be interpreted two different ways. The agreement stated that the husband’s gross income included “periodic income” but did explain exactly what comprised periodic income. One interpretation would include the husband’s incentive pay and bonuses in his gross income, and one would exclude them.

Both interpretations were reasonable, in the appeals court’s view. That made that paragraph of the MSA ambiguous and meant that the spouses were entitled to present parol evidence in their hearing. The wife should have been allowed to use the evidence that was excluded from the hearing, so she was entitled to a new hearing.

The best and most effective MSAs are the ones where both sides clearly understand exactly what it is to which they’re agreeing and are in full agreement that it is the best path forward. Sometimes, though, even the most diligently pursued of MSAs may end up in litigation. Whether you’re negotiating or litigating, the South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. are here to help, having served the family law needs of people in South Florida for many years. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

When a Spouse from a Long-Term Marriage Is (and Is Not) Entitled to Permanent Alimony in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Jan. 17, 2019

Be Informed and Be Certain Before You Sign that Alimony Agreement in Your Florida Divorce, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Jan. 9, 2019

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