Beware Before You Sign: A Maryland Court Rules that a Couple’s Handwritten Document Was a Valid Marital Settlement Agreement

financial divisionA lot of people understand that before you sign any legal document it is important to read it and to attempt to understand it to the best of your abilities. People may often proceed with caution before signing a contract to buy a car or a home, to take out a loan or to start a new job. However, the agreements to which you assent in family law are often just as legally binding, so it is advisable to proceed with just as much care. To be sure you are protected, retain legal representation from a knowledgeable Maryland divorce attorney.

As an example of the importance of knowing what you’re signing, there’s the case of T.C. and W.C. According to the wife, very early one November morning (roughly 5:30 a.m.), the husband woke her to discuss putting together the agreement governing the division of their property for their upcoming divorce. The couple took out a writing instrument and a piece of paper and allegedly set to work. According to the wife, the couple created a “his” and a “hers” column. The husband’s column included, among other tangible assets, an entry for “$150,000.” The wife asserted that this was a sum that the husband had earned from previous employment and that its entry was included to signify that the husband could keep those funds.

The husband argued something very different. He contended that the “$150,000” entry was meant to signify that the couple was agreeing that the wife would pay the husband a lump sum marital award of $150,000 in lieu of the husband’s receipt of alimony. The husband also alleged that the discussion took place at around 8:30 a.m., not 5:30.

Both spouses signed the agreement. The questions were: what was it, exactly, that they signed and what was it, precisely, that the agreement directed? The judge decided that the signed document was sufficient to constitute a valid marital settlement agreement. However, to be enforceable based solely on the words on the page, the agreement was legally required to be clear and unambiguous. The judge decided that the agreement met these legal standards of clarity. The court pointed out that every row had an asset that was to be distributed to the wife and a corresponding one to the husband. For example, the third and fourth rows indicated that the wife would receive two pieces of real estate, the husband would get two others. The eighth and ninth rows distributed two Mercedes vehicles to the wife, while distributing a Hyundai and a Harley Davidson to the husband.

The very first row indicated that the wife would get a business and its assets, and that the husband would get “$150,000.” This, to the judge, was clear and unambiguous that the husband was getting a payment of $150,000 in exchange for the wife’s receiving total possession and ownership of a successful business.

Wife’s appeal was premature, Court of Special Appeals says

The wife appealed, but the Court of Special Appeals refused even to hear her arguments. Why? It came down to timing and the rules of appeals. You can only bring an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals if the trial court has issued a final order or in certain other special circumstances. One of those circumstances is an order demanding that a party make a payment of money to the other. This wife’s case didn’t qualify. The divorce case between the two spouses was still ongoing; the trial judge had only ruled regarding the validity and enforcement of the couple’s agreement. Secondly, the trial court had ruled that the husband was to receive $150,000 from the wife but had not, at the time of the appeal, entered any kind of order demanding that the wife pay the $150,000 “at this point.” Therefore, the appeal wasn’t proper and had to be thrown out.

This couple’s case shows how things can go wrong when you engage in legal actions without adequate legal counsel. Be advised before you sign any legally binding contract. Experienced Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi can help. This office has been helping people work to achieve positive results in their family law cases. To find out how we can help you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

What Do ‘Intrinsic Fraud’ and ‘Extrinsic Fraud’ Mean and How Can They Possibly Affect Your Maryland Divorce Case?, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 12, 2018

Principles of Contract Law Govern Many Aspects of Family Law Proceedings, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 15, 2015

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