California Court Overturns Divorce Settlement Due to Coercion

Many different factors can affect the length and cost of a divorce proceeding, not the least of which concerns the parties’ ability to negotiate and interact with each other in a civil and amiable manner. Spouses who are able to work together to reach an agreement on the main issues, such as the division of property, spousal support, and other financial matters, will certainly achieve a more efficient settlement than parties who are contentious and unable to set aside their differences during this trying time. Many divorcing parties seek the assistance of a local family law attorney, someone from the San Diego area who can navigate the proceedings and facilitate an efficient and smoothly run process.

The importance of reaching a mutually acceptable marital settlement agreement cannot be overstated. Keep in mind that such an agreement must comply with local state laws applicable to the validity of contracts generally. In a very recent case, covered by the news media, a California judge overturned a divorce settlement reached between actor Terrence Howard and his wife, Michelle Ghent. According to reports, Ghent allegedly “coerced” Howard into signing the agreement by threatening to leak details of his private life. According to the court, the evidence of extortion or duress was un-rebutted. By virtue of this ruling, the Superior Court Judge is now forcing the parties to re-negotiate any financial matters related to their divorce.

At a court hearing, Howard argued that he signed the settlement agreement in 2012 out of fear that his wife would disseminate private information potentially affecting the viability of his professional acting career. Interestingly enough, the agreement afforded Ghent a share of his earnings, including a part of his salary from the hit series “Empire.” Ghent denied the allegations of extortion and has accused the actor of domestic violence. She currently has an order of protection against Howard.

Under California law, in order for a contract (marital settlement agreement) to be enforceable, the parties must “consent” to the terms. Consent must be free, mutual, and communicated to each other. Here, Howard alleged that he was forced to sign the agreement. According to another news article, at least one critic of the court’s ruling suggests that this decision undermines the “integrity of contracts” by allowing a person to avoid the consequences of an agreement by claiming to fear embarrassment. Another observer pointed out that it is a “precedent setting ruling” with “implications for the entire family law bench.” Since this decision emanated from the circuit court, it will be interesting to see whether Ghent files an appeal, and if so, how the appellate court will rule.

In most instances, parties will benefit from entering into a settlement agreement that resolves the significant financial issues in a divorce. As this recent case illustrates, it is necessary for the parties’ agreement to comply with local state laws in order to be enforceable. To protect your financial rights and to ensure that your divorce case complies with applicable state laws, it is extremely important that you contact an experienced family law attorney. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing clients in divorce matters in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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