California Court Upholds Enforceability of Marital Settlement Agreement

In many divorce proceedings, spouses enter into a “marital settlement agreement” or “MSA” in order to resolve some of the more significant issues affecting their family. By doing so, parties hope to reduce or limit the duration of the proceedings as well as any potential disputes. Reaching the decision to divorce can be difficult enough, without the added stress of arguing over property, custody, support, and the like. Questions sometimes arise, however, as to the enforceability of the MSA. It is an agreement, similar to most contracts, which must adhere to certain legal qualifications in order to be enforceable. If you are considering divorce, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney as early as possible in the process. A local San Diego lawyer would be able to help you navigate the system, while addressing the relevant legal issues in an efficient manner to protect and advance your rights.

In a recent divorce case, characterized as “highly litigated,” the parties disputed the enforceability of a MSA, which allegedly purported to resolve issues such as the division of community property, obligations, and other financial rights and claims. The MSA was allegedly intended to reach a “global settlement” and to be incorporated into the judgment of divorce. Here, the parties married in 1993 and the wife filed for dissolution of marriage in 2007. In 2008, the couple executed the marital settlement agreement, which is at issue in this case. In March 2009, the husband filed a motion to enter judgment based on the agreement, in accordance with Section 664.6 of the state civil procedure code.

The wife opposed the motion, arguing that they never fully agreed to the terms of the proposed settlement agreement. In December 2010, a judge denied the husband’s motion, concluding that there was never a “meeting of the minds,” which is necessary for an enforceable agreement. For no clear reason, it seems that the case was transferred to another judge/court. The case went to trial in August 2012, and it lasted 15 days over a nine-month period. Since the agreement had been ruled unenforceable, the parties litigated most of the issues that had been covered by the MSA.

After the trial, in October 2013, the court tentatively ruled that it intended to reconsider the previous court’s decision that the agreement had been unenforceable. In March 2014, the court concluded that the prior ruling denying the husband’s motion was “improvident and erroneous,” finding that it was not supported by substantial evidence. The wife appealed the decision, arguing that the court erred in granting reconsideration after three years (and after the parties went through a trial), and in reconsidering and reversing an earlier ruling by a different trial court judge.

According to the court of appeals, a trial court judge generally may not reconsider and overrule an interim ruling of another trial judge, with certain narrow exceptions. The court concluded that none of the recognized exceptions applied in this type of case, namely when one judge simply disagrees with the prior decision. Therefore, the court ruled that the second judge erred in vacating the earlier ruling on the MSA. Part of the court’s reasoning focused on the wife’s right to believe the prior ruling was definitive and the fact that the reconsideration resulted in “unfairness” to her.

This case nicely illustrates the complicated nature of California’s civil code and how legal procedural rules can affect a divorce proceeding. An experienced family law attorney would be fully aware of the laws affecting your case and would guide you through the process accordingly. 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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