When a Florida Marital Settlement Agreement Validly Signed by Both Spouses Still Isn’t Enforceable

Reason #237 why it pays to have a knowledgeable South Florida family law attorney on your side: because winning your case requires an in-depth knowledge of the law… all of the law.

Some people may think they can pursue their divorce case without legal counsel. They may reason that they have strong grasp of the relevant facts of the case, and may even claim a working knowledge of certain divorce-related Florida laws like alimony law, parental responsibility law, child support law or equitable distribution law. As the recent case of one Flagler County couple demonstrates, winning your case may require more than that.

A.R., the wife, reportedly filed for divorce in 2016 after 17 years of marriage. The couple had three children together. The spouses worked to negotiate the terms of a marital settlement agreement and, eventually, the husband sent the wife the agreement, which he had already signed. The wife talked to her attorney, wrote down five handwritten statements on the document, signed the agreement and sent it back to the husband.

Later on, the husband filed a motion in court to enforce the terms of the agreement. Since both he and the wife had signed the agreement, the spouses had a binding contract and the husband was entitled to enforcement, right?

Not in this situation.

The appeals court recently issued a ruling siding with the wife against enforcement of the agreement. The reason that the husband was not entitled to enforcement in this circumstance had nothing to do with the agreement’s terms being unconscionable or one spouse’s signature being acquired through fraud, duress or coercion (which are some ways that a marital settlement agreement can be unenforceable.)

Instead, it came down a basic concept of contract law. Contract law in every state, including Florida, requires that there be a “meeting of the minds” in order for there to be an enforceable agreement. What that means is that there must be written proof that there was one set of “essential” contract terms to which both parties agreed.

Signing a settlement agreement doesn’t always mean ‘acceptance’

The wife’s five handwritten statement covered relevant topics including alimony and child support. In other words, her handwritten statements related to essential terms. That meant that, under the rules of contract law, when she wrote those five handwritten statements, signed the agreement and sent it back to the husband, she was not accepting his “offer,” she was rejecting that offer and making a counteroffer of her own. Because there was no written proof that the husband accepted that “counteroffer,” then there was no binding contract.

There were ways the husband could have averted this unsuccessful outcome. Assuming that the changes made by the wife’s handwritten statements were acceptable to the husband, he could have re-written the agreement to include those additional terms, signed it and then sent it to the wife for her to sign. However, by not understanding what he had (a counteroffer document) and what he did not have (a binding contract,) the husband did not take the proper actions and it eventually cost him with regard to winning his case and getting his settlement agreement enforced.

It is generally a good thing when spouses attempt to resolve their divorce differences through mutual agreement. However, the process of putting together the right marital settlement agreement still benefits from the skill and in-depth knowledge of an experienced attorney. Whether you are negotiating an equitable distribution agreement, drafting and executing an agreement or seeking to enforce an agreement, rely upon the diligent South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our attorneys have many years of helping our clients work toward the outcomes they seek in marital settlement agreement and other family law matters. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

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