When Your Divorce Settlement Negotiation Communications Are — and Aren’t — an Enforceable Contract in Florida

When you’ve decided to divorce, it can go one of two ways. It can be adversarial, with issues decided by the judge, or it can be more collaborative, with the two spouses working out some or all issues through negotiation. It obviously pays to have a skilled South Florida family law attorney in the first scenario. What too many people overlook, though, is that a knowledge family law attorney can also provide invaluable aid in the second scenario, too. So, whether you are reaching your divorce outcome through litigation, negotiation or some of both, be sure you have the quality legal help you need.

You might wonder why you’d need legal representation in a divorce where you are trying to negotiate an outcome out of court. There are several reasons, actually. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that you’ll settle all your issues and never have to litigate anything before the judge. Secondly, a seasoned attorney can help you assess whether the terms your spouse has offered are fair or are unreasonable.

Thirdly, the right attorney can protect you in the event that a dispute arises about what has happened during the negotiation process and what legal meaning those processes should hold. That was the case for one husband in Panama City.

The husband, C.T., and his wife, T.T. began divorce settlement negotiations after 16 years of marriage. The husband’s attorney sent a settlement offer letter to the wife. The wife’s attorney sent a letter back eight days later stating that the wife was “agreeable to the offer.” The letter from the wife’s attorney also stated that “as we discussed, this agreement will not affect her alimony.”

Four days later, the wife’s attorney sent the husband’s lawyer a “proposed settlement agreement.” That document contained the six items from the husband’s offer. It also, though, contained additional terms related to payment of alimony, as well as “resolution of pending claims.”

Eight days after the wife’s attorney wrote that document, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, doing major damage to the husband’s business. The husband’s attorney indicated the business losses the husband suffered might impact any final agreement. The wife’s lawyer responded by going to court and filing a motion asking the judge to enforce the settlement agreement that, the wife argued, the two sides had already reached. The husband argued that the sides had never reached a valid, enforceable agreement.

So, which spouse was right?

According to the appeals court, the husband was. Marital settlement agreements, in most ways, operate like any other legal contracts. That means, among other things, that they must have all of the essential elements of a valid contract. Two of the most fundamental elements are the existence of an offer and an acceptance of that offer.

Now, it might look like that happened in C.T.’s case, but it actually didn’t under the specific requirements of the law. In order for an acceptance to be valid, it must be a “mirror image” of the offer in all “material aspects.” If it isn’t a mirror image… if it adds or subtracts anything that is “material” to the outcome… then the law declares it to be, not an acceptance of the first person’s offer, but instead a counteroffer to the first person’s offer.

In C.T.’s case, the wife’s letter failed that “mirror image” test. The wife’s letter added terms related to alimony and to the case’s other pending claims. Those were material additions, so that made the wife’s letter a counteroffer, not an acceptance of the husband’s offer. Because the husband never expressed an explicit acceptance of that counteroffer, the spouses never had a consummated agreement and the wife was not entitled to enforcement.

The husband, because he had the right legal representation, was not obliged to do anything based on the terms of any of the communications exchanged.

In divorce settlement negotiations, details matter. Sometimes, seemingly small details may make a big difference. When you are going through a divorce, make sure you have the skillful and detail-oriented legal representation you need. Call upon the knowledgeable South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A., who have been helping Florida families for many years. Count on us for the useful advice and powerful advocacy your case needs. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation today.

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