Can you challenge the validity and enforceability of a Marital Settlement Agreement? If so, on what basis and with what probable result? A Marital Settlement Agreement is the legally binding contract between you and your spouse that contains all of the terms of your divorce. That may include distribution of property, alimony, child support and child custody. Regardless of the terms of the agreement, child custody is always modifiable and child support is almost always modifiable. Therefore, we’re going to focus on possible challenges to distribution of property and alimony.
Of all the possible reasons to challenge a divorce agreement, only three have any reasonable chance of success and only in very limited circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you had an attorney, if you didn’t read the agreement, if your spouse promised something that wasn’t contained in the agreement, if you felt pressured to sign because you just wanted the divorce done, if you were upset because you didn’t want the divorce to happen, etc. The law presumes that the agreement is valid and the person challenging the agreement has the burden of convincing the court that it should be overturned.
The first possible reason is “lack of full and fair disclosure.” If you can prove that the other party failed to disclose information and that information would have changed your mind about signing the agreement, the court may overturn the agreement. The undisclosed information must be significant enough for the court to accept that it would have changed your mind about signing. And you must show that you did not have the information or have access to the information.
The second possible reason is duress. This means that 1) you were physically forced to sign the agreement –the “gun to the head” scenario, with someone ready to cause you physical harm at that moment if you didn’t sign; and 2) that you would not have signed but for the physical coercion. Again, the challenger has the burden to convince the court that this happened and it was the reason for signing.
The third reason is lack of capacity, meaning you were mentally incapable of legally entering into the contract at the time you signed and should therefore not be held to the terms of the contract. The legal standard for being capable of entering into a contract is relatively low, so unless you are incapable of caring for yourself and/or handling your own finances and are in need of a legal guardian, this challenge has little chance of success.
There are many possible reasons to challenge a divorce agreement, and in some limited circumstances, certain challenges may be successful. However, it is unlikely. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – take the time to consider a proposed agreement and make sure you ask any relevant questions before signing, because you must assume that you will be legally bound by the terms of the agreement.
If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss divorce agreements or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.