California Court Discusses Interpreting Marital Settlement Agreements

It is not uncommon for a couple that is ending their marriage to draft a marital settlement agreement defining their rights and obligations and dividing community assets. While there are benefits to entering into such an agreement, there are risks as well, as demonstrated in a recent California ruling in which the Court held that broad language precluded the former wife from pursuing additional relief. If you intend to end your marriage and want to learn more about how the decision may impact you financially, it is wise to confer with a San Diego divorce lawyer to assess your options.

History of the Case

It is alleged that the wife petitioned the Court to dissolve her marriage to the husband in 2000. The parties subsequently entered into a marital settlement agreement, which was later incorporated into a dissolution judgment entered by the Court. The wife was represented by counsel during the course of negotiations for the agreement, while the husband was not. Among other things, the agreement defined certain community assets and liabilities as the separate property of each party and included language releasing each party from all interspousal obligations, regardless of whether they were incurred before or after the date of the agreement, and all claims to each other’s property.

Reportedly, the agreement also included language stating it applied to all claims the parties had against one another, whether known or unknown. In 2019, the wife filed a motion to adjudicate a community asset that was left out of the marital settlement agreement. The Court found that the agreement’s release barred the wife’s claim, as it arose out of an interspousal obligation, and denied the wife’s motion. She then appealed.

Interpreting the Language of the Marital Settlement Agreement

The Court upheld the Trial Court ruling on appeal. In doing so, the Court explained that the wife’s interpretation of the term “interspousal obligation” was too narrow in that she limited it to the obligations referred to in the California Family Code. The Court took a much broader view, interpreting the term by its ordinary usage, meaning a duty to act or abstain from acting or a mutual legal relationship imposing duties and rights.

Accordingly, the Court found that the wife’s request for relief was barred by the release because it sought to enforce an interspousal obligation, and she waived the right to pursue any claims arising out of such obligations. Based on the foregoing, the Trial Court ruling was affirmed.

Talk to a Trusted San Diego Family Law Attorney

Marital settlement agreements are contracts that are enforceable under California law; as such, it is important that anyone considering entering into such an agreement take the measures necessary to ensure that their rights are protected. If you need assistance in a divorce matter, it is in your best interest to talk to an attorney. The trusted San Diego lawyers of Doppelt and Forney APLC can inform you of your rights and help you to seek a favorable outcome. You can reach us through our online form or by calling us at 800-769-4748 to set up a free and confidential conference.

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