As approximately 98% of all divorces in the state of New Jersey result in a global settlement, I have handled countless “uncontested” divorce hearings at the Superior Court of New Jersey over the course of my 20 years as an attorney. During an uncontested hearing, a fully executed Property (or Matrimonial) Settlement Agreement is entered into evidence. Next, each lawyer shall ask their respective clients certain questions regarding the agreement, including:
- Are you familiar with this agreement?
- Have you read it closely?
- Does the agreement reflect the negotiations and ultimate settlement that you reached with your spouse?
- Have you had enough time to consider the agreement?
- Do you understand that any oral or “side” agreements between you and your spouse are not enforceable?
The last question above is most relevant to today’s blog. Long story short, anything that was discussed during negotiations that is not stated in your Property Settlement agreement cannot be used as evidence if you wind up back in a New Jersey Family Court after your divorce has been finalized. Let’s take a closer look.
Many agreements are specifically tailored to that parties’ case, and it can be the most important document for those two individuals as far as resolving any future issues between them. Certain dilemmas can arise when a party strays from the terms of an agreement and one party may try and bring in outside discussions or documents to support their position in either enforcing the agreement or trying to get around its terms. This can create several problems, which we will discuss in more detail herein.
The State of New Jersey has a strong public policy favoring enforcement of marital agreements. Marital agreements are essentially consensual and voluntary and as a result, they are approached with a predisposition in favor of their validity and enforceability. Matrimonial settlement agreements, because of their voluntary and consensual character, are entitled to considerable weight so that they should not be unnecessarily or lightly disturbed and in interpreting the provisions of the parties’ agreement no Court may create a new or better contract for them.
As any divorced individual can tell you when they are granted a Judgment of Divorce which incorporates their agreement, the Court typically puts certain things on the record to establish that each party has read it, signed it and testified that they understood what they were signing. This is to further support the notion that the terms of the agreement were specifically bargained for by the parties and what they intended to be in the agreement, and should therefore be enforceable.
In the legal community there is something referred to as the “Parol Evidence Rule”, which is a principle that stands for the premise that a writing intended by the parties to be a final embodiment of their agreement cannot be modified by evidence that adds to, varies, or contradicts the writing.
The purpose of the Parol Evidence Rule is not to exclude unreliable evidence, but to exclude evidence, however reliable, of negotiations and understandings which the parties intended to supplant with the agreement under consideration. Simply stated, the final agreement made by the parties supersedes any terms discussed in early negotiations. Thus, a party, who is attempting to justify modifying the terms of a final unambiguous agreement, must be prohibited from doing so pursuant to the Parol Evidence Rule.
The court will typically prohibit a party’s attempts to essentially re-do their particular agreement, and instead the Court is left with analyzing the “four corners” of said agreement to determine the implementation of same. The “Four-Corners Rule” is defined as the principle that no extraneous evidence should be used to interpret an unambiguous document.
Courts recognize matrimonial settlement agreements as falling within the category of contracts enforceable in equity. Consistent with familiar cannons of construction, the words of an agreement are given their ordinary meaning. In interpreting a contract, it is not the real intent but the intent expressed or apparent in the writing that controls. A Court determines a written agreement’s validity by considering the intentions of the parties as reflected in the four corners of the written agreement. It is not the function of the Court to make a better contract for the parties, or to supply terms that have not been agreed upon.
Conversely, agreements may be reformed if based upon a mistake common to both parties or a mistake of one party accompanied by the fraudulent knowledge of the other, especially in those circumstances where both parties were represented by their own independent counsel. This is typically a rare occurrence though and very hard to prove. A party trying to prevail on this ground would need to present evidence to support that the provision in question was in error, and this would need to be more than one’s own self-serving statements. If a provision of the agreement is clear and unambiguous, a court will typically find same controlling and enforce it.
In most cases, when a party attempts to bring in this outside information, the court will bar same under the Parol Evidence Rule. In addition, if the court believes that a party is acting in bad faith, they can award the other party counsel fees based on a set of factors that the court must review when a party requests an award of counsel fees. An individual should be mindful of these principles when they attempt to enforce an agreement or when they are trying to get out of following a specific term of an agreement.
In the event you find yourself in a bind and need to enforce the terms of your settlement agreement or believe that your adversary is interpreting same with the wrong intent to your detriment, we can help you pursue or defend such a claim. As practicing New Jersey family law attorneys we can assess your case and get you the relief you are entitled to. Please do not hesitate to contact our firm today to discuss your rights and how we can help you.