Southern California Wife’s Use of Undue Influence over Husband Wipes Out Couple’s Settlement Agreement

signatureWhen you are going through a divorce, there are many things you have to weigh, both from a strategic and a personal point of view. One of these decisions is whether or not to pursue a contested divorce. If you are interested in pursuing your divorce as an uncontested case, there are several steps. One way to achieve an uncontested divorce is to resolve all of your issues and put down your agreed-upon terms in a stipulation for judgment. It is important to ensure that both sides are genuinely in agreement on the terms, however, since a court can refuse to enter a stipulation for judgment if the judge concludes that one spouse used undue influence or duress to secure the other spouse’s agreement to the stipulation. That’s what happened in a recent case that originated in Los Angeles County and was decided recently by the Second District Court of Appeal.

The spouses, William and Meghan Cooke, had been married for just under 13 years when they separated in September 2012. The wife filed for divorce in October, and, less than two weeks later, the couple was sitting in the wife’s attorney’s office. There, for the first time, the husband read the proposed stipulation for judgment that would allow them to pursue their case as an uncontested divorce. The agreement called for the wife to get the marital home and the van, along with sole physical custody of the children. The husband got a piece of vacant land, his truck, his trailer, and his car collection. The couple agreed to divide their retirement accounts and agreed that neither spouse owed the other any spousal support. The husband, who was crying, felt pressured to sign the agreement but did so anyway. He had no attorney at that time.

The husband soon had misgivings and filed a response contesting the case. His filing claimed that the marital home and several other assets were community property. He also claimed that the wife owed him $498 per month in spousal support, as well as challenging custody and visitation. The husband asked to set aside the stipulation, while the wife asked the trial court to enforce it.

The trial judge sided with the husband. The wife appealed the trial court’s decision, but the appeals court agreed with the trial judge. In California, under Section 721 of the California Family Code, spouses have the duty to deal with each other with the highest level of “good faith and fair dealing” and not take any “unfair advantage of the other.” In this case, the wife did not meet that standard. She brought her husband to her lawyer’s office to sign a stipulation that he’d never seen before. At the office, the wife, who was accompanied by her father, did little to ensure that her weeping husband was in a proper frame of mind to review the agreement and didn’t offer much explanation of the ramifications of the deal, other than to persuade the husband that he should sign it because it was “the easiest way for the kids.”

In addition to holding spouses to “a duty of the highest good faith and fair dealing,” the law also creates a presumption that all transactions between spouses are the result of undue influence. This doesn’t mean that all deals between spouses are the product of undue influence and therefore unenforceable, but it means that the spouse seeking to uphold the agreement bears the burden of proving to the court that the arrangement wasn’t created using undue influence. In the Cookes’ case, the wife did not have the necessary proof to defeat this presumption. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade the appeals court that this presumption of undue influence doesn’t apply to stipulations for judgment. While the wife was correct when she argued that this legal presumption doesn’t apply to mediated settlement agreements, that didn’t mean the law also exempts unmediated agreements like the Cookes’ from the presumption. The presence of the mediator and the mediation privilege are key components of the law’s exempting mediated agreements from that presumption, and neither of those things was involved in the Cookes’ agreement.

In the Cookes’ case, the husband placed himself in a disadvantageous position, unwisely signed a potentially harmful agreement, and then needed to litigate the matter to escape having the agreement enforced. All of this might have been avoided if the husband had retained counsel from the start. The experienced and determined San Diego property division attorneys at Doppelt & Forney have helped clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, and are prepared to ensure that any settlement agreement in your divorce properly represents your interests and protects your rights. For a free consultation about your divorce, reach out to Doppelt & Forney through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

More blog posts:

California Court Reviews Ex-Wife’s Action To Vacate Divorce Judgment Based on Fraud, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2016

California Court Upholds Couples’ Stipulation in Divorce Action, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, June 28, 2016