We often blog about the statutory requirement in all California divorces for divorcing parties to exchange complete financial disclosures. The required disclosure documents consist substantially of an Income and Expense Declaration and a Schedule of Assets and Debts. Through the completion of these documents, the parties are obligated to provide all material facts and information regarding their income, expenses, assets and debts. Failure to complete these forms in accordance with the highest duty of good faith and fair dealing may result in severe sanctions imposed by the court. Considering these strict requirements, the California Court of Appeal surprised family law attorneys in a recent case, In re Marriage of Evans, in which it held that the parties could reach enforceable divorce settlements prior to the exchange of the financial disclosure documents.
In Evans, prior to filing for divorce, the parties negotiated and signed a "pre-divorce agreement" which divided their interest in the marital residence. After a Petition for Dissolution was filed, Mr. Evans filed a motion to set aside the parties' pre-divorce agreement. Mr. Evans argued that the agreement was invalid because the parties did not exchange their disclosure documents prior to its execution. The trial court disagreed with Mr. Evans and held that the pre-divorce agreement was valid and ordered its terms to become part of the Judgment of Dissolution. Mr. Evans appealed the trial court's decision and lost again. The appeals court held that the financial disclosure statutes only were intended to apply after service of a divorce petition.
With the Evans ruling now a published opinion, there is a loop hole for parties who wish to enter into property agreements prior to exchange of disclosure documents. It is important to note that Evans does not extinguish the requirement for both parties to abide by the disclosure statutes once a divorce has been filed; it only addresses agreements made prior to filing for divorce. In addition, pre-divorce agreements made in contemplation of divorce may be set aside for various other reasons. If you and your spouse would like to enter into a pre-divorce agreement, but are not yet ready to file for divorce, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney prior to executing any agreement. The right attorney can help you draft an agreement that will be enforceable in the event of divorce.