In many marital relationships, the spouses share much in common. They may share not only common interests, but also similar degrees of intellect and/or education. However, not all marriages work this way. Some may, in fact, have significant disparities of intellect, education or earning capacity.
A large disparity can matter a great deal if that marriage ends in divorce. It can be important because the disparity may open the door for the dependent spouse to argue successfully that his spouse used her position of dominance to create a marital settlement agreement that was the product of fraud. What this should tell you is that, even if you got your spouse’s signature on the “dotted line” of a settlement agreement, you may not be finished litigating those issues, which is one more reason why you need experienced Maryland family law counsel on your side.
How does this type of fraud argument work? A recent case originating in Montgomery County is a good example. K.P. and W.P. were spouses who separated in 2012. In September 2016, the wife’s lawyer drafted a “comprehensive settlement agreement resolving all issues arising out of the marriage.” The wife signed it in the lawyer’s office. She then allegedly asked the husband to meet her at a bank later that same day.
As a very important aside, the court’s opinion clearly mentions the wife’s divorce attorney but never makes mention of the husband having a lawyer at that time or indicating that an attorney for the husband ever reviewed the agreement. It is quite possible the husband had no legal counsel of his own at the time that the agreement was drawn up and signed. This should serve as a lesson for anyone going through divorce: no matter how much you depend on, and think you can trust, your spouse, a divorce is an adversarial process. You need a lawyer of your own who is duty-bound and ethically sworn always to act in your best interest, and not leave everything up to a spouse whom you hope is acting in your best interest.
In this case, W.P. allegedly met the wife at the bank and, after reviewing the document while the couple waited 15 minutes for a notary, signed the agreement before the notary.
Confidential relationships between spouses and invalidating marital settlement agreements
Later, when the wife went to court to seek to enforce the agreement, the husband – perhaps now represented by counsel – offered a clever argument. The husband asserted that he and the wife had a confidential relationship and that the wife abused that relationship to procure his signature on the settlement agreement, making the agreement the product of fraud and not enforceable.
Now, you may have heard of spousal confidentiality as it relates to criminal cases, but this is different. In divorce law, a special kind of confidential relationship can sometimes exist where one spouse is dominant and the other is dependent. When that happens and the dependent spouse asks a court to set aside a settlement agreement, then the law requires the dominant spouse to prove that the agreement was not the product of fraud.
If you find yourself in this type of situation, the elements that the court will look at include “age, mental condition, education, business experience, state of health, and degree of dependence of the spouse in question.”
That, of course, is quite a lengthy list, but one whose factors an experienced divorce attorney will be well acquainted. By amassing the right amount – and right kind – of evidence, your legal team can help you achieve the outcome you seek.
Whether you are striving to enforce your settlement agreement or to get it set aside, put the power of knowledgeable legal counsel on your side. Experienced Maryland divorce attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been diligently representing husbands, wives, mothers and fathers in Maryland for many years. To learn more about how we can help you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.