Couples who decide to divorce may approach the proceedings in a variety of different ways, depending on the nature of their current relationship and the number of issues to sort through. Mediation is one method that some couples pursue, in an effort to resolve certain matters out of court. In mediation, an impartial third party (the mediator) will help the couple reach an agreement they both find acceptable. The mediator acts as a facilitator and typically has no power to force an agreement on the parties. But, even with mediation, the couple must be aware of legal requirements associated with any agreement that results from those sessions. If you are facing a divorce, it is important to understand your legal rights at every stage of the proceedings. You are encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area.
A recent court decision highlights the importance of being aware of the local laws applicable to divorce and mediation. Here, the couple got married in 1981 and separated in 2004. The wife filed a petition for marital dissolution in 2005. She never served the petition on the husband, nor were any other documents filed with the court. The couple did, however, enter into mediation, which resulted in a proposed stipulated judgment, settling all issues related to marital rights, such as child custody and support, division of property, and spousal support. Among other things, the stipulated judgment (dated June 2006) stated that it constituted a marital settlement agreement and that the court would “supervise the overall enforcement of this Judgment.” Neither party filed the stipulated judgment with the court.
On May 31, 2011, the court dismissed the wife’s divorce petition for lack of prosecution. Just under two weeks later, she filed a second petition for dissolution and moved to have the stipulated judgment entered as a judgment in the dismissed proceedings, and incorporated into a judgment in the current proceedings. The husband opposed the motion. The trial court denied both motions but scheduled a trial to determine the enforceability of the stipulated judgment. During the trial, the husband objected to the admission of the stipulated judgment, arguing that it was protected by the mediation privilege under California Evidence Code, Section 1119. The trial court overruled his objection and held that the stipulated judgment was an enforceable marital settlement agreement. Accordingly, the court entered a judgment on reserved issues, based on the language of the 2006 stipulated judgment. The husband appealed.
The court of appeals reviewed Section 1119 of the Evidence Code and found that a written settlement agreement prepared during a mediation is not inadmissible if it is signed by the parties, and the agreement provides that it is subject to disclosure or admissible or has words to that effect. The court concluded that the language of the stipulated judgment clearly reflected the parties’ agreement that the document be subject to disclosure and be enforceable. The court reasoned that by including language that the court would enforce the agreement and that they would be bound by it, the parties demonstrated that they did not expect the document to remain confidential. Despite a few other arguments raised by the husband, the court affirmed the decision to uphold the stipulated judgment.
This case clearly illustrates the need to confer with an experienced family law attorney in any divorce-related proceeding. Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parties in family law matters for more than 20 years. Doppelt and Forney, APLC serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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