People enter into contracts for a variety of purposes. In the family law realm, prospective spouses may choose to enter into a pre-nuptial agreement prior to the marriage, in order to identify the ownership of certain assets and debts (among other issues) going forward. At the other end of the spectrum, a divorcing couple may be able to agree on the significant items to be resolved during those proceedings and execute a voluntary separation and property settlement agreement. One of the essential elements of any valid contract or agreement is the mutual intent of the parties to be bound by the terms of the document. To be sure that your family law-related agreement will hold up in a court of law, you are encouraged to seek the assistance of an experienced Maryland family lawyer as early as possible in the proceedings.
The potential enforceability of a contract can have a serious impact on the outcome of a family law matter. For example, at the forefront of a recent divorce case making national news was the enforceability of a contract entered into during the marriage of a recently divorced couple. In this unique situation, the couple faced fertility challenges, and they agreed to engage in in-vitro fertilization (“IVF”). As part of this process, the parties signed a Consent and Agreement (the “Agreement”) setting forth the terms of the process, as well as the disposition of any resulting embryos should the couple divorce. The IVF treatment produced embryos that were subsequently frozen for future use.
Once the marriage began to fall apart, and the parties divorced, they expressed differing opinions as to the fate of their frozen embryos. Because of the wife’s advancing age and her affliction with cancer, she hoped to be able to use the embryos at a later date. The husband did not want to be forced to be the parent of a child outside the marriage. The wife took legal action to establish her right to use the frozen embryos. A trial court in San Francisco recently ruled in favor of the husband, ordering the embryos to be thawed and destroyed in accordance with the couples’ Agreement.
Here, while the court was faced with medical ethics questions and novel legal issues, the judge pointed out that it was the contract that would govern the outcome. That is, the plain language of the Agreement established the mutual intent of the parties that, upon divorce, the embryos would be thawed and discarded. Furthermore, the Agreement contained a provision indicating that the parties must make any decisions regarding the fate of the embryos “jointly.”
The court disregarded the wife’s claims that she did not read the document carefully and that due to her health and other issues, she was incapable of entering into the contract. The court looked at the wife’s intelligence, education, and profession (she is a doctor), and it concluded that her testimony – that she did not intend to enter into a binding agreement – was simply not credible. Unfortunately for the wife, she did not appreciate the implications of entering into the Agreement at issue.
Since this case took place in a California court, the decision does not have a precedential effect on the legal system here in Maryland. However, this is a new and evolving area of the law, and the court’s opinion may serve to inform other courts throughout the country. Despite the jurisdiction, this case exemplifies the vital need to consult with an experienced family law attorney in any divorce-related proceeding. Anthony A. Fatemi is a Maryland family law attorney who has extensive experience representing parties in all aspects of divorce. Mr. Fatemi can be reached at (888) 519-2801 or (301) 519-2801.
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