Marital Settlement Agreements: What You Need to Know

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Without question, one of the toughest life experiences is ending a marriage.  The divorce process itself is often the source of great stress.  In fact, you may enter into a marital settlement agreement (MSA) to speed up the process.  Notwithstanding, you should ensure you know what you are signing before agreeing to anything.

Truth be told, divorce settlements are strongly encouraged.  The courts like them because settled cases free up their calendars.  An experienced family law attorney can easily recite the advantages of negotiating with your ex.   First, there’s the issue of saving the expense of a full trial.  However, there’s one other critical aspect of a marital settlement agreement.

All things considered, a divorce settlement gives you some power.  You might decide to dig in your heels if you find it impossible to come to a resolution.  However, if your case goes to court, the judge makes all the decisions for you.   After a while, you might find that compromising on some issues might be better for you.

With all that said, you still need to understand the contents of the MSA.  For the most part, this means asking your attorney to explain every detail. It also means paying attention to the information provided.  Otherwise, you could find yourself in the position of the parties in a recent New Jersey unpublished decision.

Marital Settlement Agreement Challenged

First, it should be noted that TLH v. MH, NJ: Appellate Div. 2017 is an unpublished legal opinion.  Consequently, the court’s ruling is not precedent, as it only applies to the named parties.  In this case, T.L.H. and M.H. divorced after twenty-one years of marriage.  When the judgment of divorce was entered, it included a marital settlement agreement signed by both parties.

As part of the divorce settlement, the parties agreed that M.H. would initially make $500 weekly alimony payments to T.L.H.  Additionally, it was noted that the marital home was in foreclosure.  As a result, T.L.H. would ultimately need to leave the house.  At that time, the alimony would be increased to $700 weekly.   However, there was an additional provision concerning the alimony payments.  According to the MSA, the alimony would terminate:

[U]pon the death of either party or the marriage or cohabitation of [plaintiff]. The term "cohabitation[,"] in addition to its meaning as construed by New Jersey courts, shall also incorporate the scenario if [plaintiff] should take up residence with any family members (other than the children of the parties) or friends.

As the foreclosure process continued, there came a time that T.L.H. was forced out of the marital home.  She then took up with residence with her sister.  Meanwhile, M.H. used this as an opportunity to discontinue alimony payment by the terms of the marital settlement agreement.  T.L.H. disputed that living with her sister should be considered cohabitation.  At the very least, T.L.H. felt it did not reach the level of cohabitation as determined by precedential case law

Upon judicial review, the court agreed with M.H.’s decision to discontinue spousal support payments.  The MSA was clear in adding to the definition of cohabitation as it applied to the parties.  Furthermore, when T.L.H. signed the document, she acknowledged her consent and understanding of the agreement.  Thus, the MSA was to serve as a binding agreement.

The bottom line is that before you enter into a divorce settlement, you need to be sure you understand the terms.  In the foregoing matter, T.L.H. knew or should have known, that moving in with her sister would terminate alimony payments.

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