Enforceability of Unfair Terms in Marital Settlement Agreements

June 12, 2013

San Diego Divorce CourtIn January 2013, divorce attorneys were abuzz as our local Court of Appeal took a strong stance with regard to enforceability of Marital Settlement Agreements ("MSA's"). In San Diego family law cases, the parties to a divorce have the ability to enter into agreements regarding any area of their case. Settling issues such as child custody/visitation, support, and property division is advantageous to the parties because they have the opportunity to craft unique provisions which meet their individual needs. San Diego family courts are limited by the California Family Code and local/state guidelines in what types of orders they can make. However, when parties and/or their divorce attorneys draft their own settlement terms it is imperative to consider all possible future scenarios before signing a Marital Settlement Agreement.

In the unfortunate case of Marriage of Hibbard, the parties to the divorce agreed that spousal support "shall not be reduced to an amount lower than two thousand dollars per month" and would only terminate upon Wife's death or remarriage or the death of Husband. In this case, the parties were married for thirty years from 1971 to 2001. At the time of separation, Husband and Wife were both lawyers. Husband earned $84,000 per year and Wife earned $24,000 per year. In 2011, Husband's post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") fully manifested and hindered his ability to work. Husband's PSTD symptoms began in 1970 after he served in combat in Vietnam.

In 2012, unable to work more than a few hours a day and drowning in debt, Husband filed a motion in family court to modify spousal support. After shutting down his law practice, Husband only expected to receive $4,040 per month in income from disability and Social Security. Wife opposed Husband's request to modify support stating she was only receiving $1,738 per month in teacher's retirement and Social Security. Wife also stated she was similarly unable to work. The trial court held that it was unable to modify spousal support outside of the terms of the marital settlement agreement and therefore refused to reduce support lower than $2,000 per month. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court's decision.

Marriage of Hibbard is a great example of the importance of carefully considering and drafting Marital Settlement Agreement provisions. Before singing their Marital Settlement Agreement, the Hibbards could have easily imagined a situation where Husband would be financially unable to pay Wife $2,000 per month in spousal support. However, they did not provide any exceptions to the blanket prohibition on a spousal support award lower than $2,000 per month. The Court upheld their agreement despite its unfair applicability to the parties' current circumstances. Marital Settlement Agreements are interpreted under general contract laws which hold that contracting parties have the right to enter into any agreement of their choosing. Divorce attorneys will advise their clients that the role of the court is not to re-write agreements but rather to enforce them as written.

Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding child custody and visitation. Nancy J. Bickford is the only attorney in San Diego County representing clients in divorces, who is a Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) and who is actively licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Don't settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.

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