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What if my Divorce Settlement Agreement is Ambiguous?

Sometimes couples attempt to draft a Marital Settlement Agreement themselves or use a paralegal service to do so. While this is usually done to save money, a poorly worded or ambiguous settlement agreement can be extraordinarily costly in the long run. While everyone may seem agreeable to the terms of the settlement agreement at the time of its execution, disputes often arise months or even years down the road. Given that the Marital Settlement Agreement is a contract, it controls as to how those disputes are handled. However, when the terms of the settlement agreement are ambiguous, the parties must go back to court to request that the Judge interpret the terms of the agreement.

Typically, a settlement agreement will not be disturbed, unless it is ambiguous or in need of clarification, modification, or interpretation. If there is no ambiguity, the parties are bound by the terms of their agreement. As with any contract, the starting point is the language of the agreement and a contract should be considered as a whole, not in its isolated parts. Where the parties read the same document and come to opposite, but equally reasonable conclusions, the agreement contains an ambiguity and must be clarified. For example, we recently handled a case where the parties drafted a settlement agreement, which read “the Wife shall receive half of the Husband’s pension valued at $70,000 upon his retirement.” While this provision may seem clear-cut, the Wife believed she was to receive $70,000, while the Husband believed she was entitled to receive $35,000. Both interpretations are reasonable given the language of the contract, which means that the contract is ambiguous. In these types of situations, the court must then look to other evidence to interpret the parties’ intent at the time that they executed the contract. For example, the court may look at the value of the pension at the time that the parties executed the agreement to help determine the intent of the parties.

The regulatory powers of the state of Florida are not available to affect, modify or change the bargain of the parties. A judge must enforce the parties’ agreement when called upon to do so, but that judge has no power to rewrite their agreement, unless an ambiguity exists in the agreement. When drafting a Marital Settlement Agreement, it is extraordinarily important to ensure that there are no ambiguities as ambiguities essentially allow a court to reinterpret and rewrite your Marital Settlement Agreement. Litigation over ambiguities in a settlement agreement can be very expensive, especially since most cases are appealed. If you are seeking a divorce and you and your spouse agree upon all of the terms of the settlement agreement, make sure that you have an experienced family law attorney draft the agreement to help prevent the possibility of future litigation due to ambiguities.

Further Reading:
Collaborative Divorce May Be the way of the Future
Make sure your Prenuptial Agreement Stands up in Court
Do I need an aggressive attorney?