As a spouse going through a divorce, you’ll face many choices. You may elect to resolve all your issues via a negotiated settlement, all via a trial, or some in each of those two settings. As is true in any negotiation setting, it is exceptionally important to understand when you have a complete agreement, when you have a partial agreement, and when, under the terms of the law, you have no binding agreement at all (even if you and your spouse seemed to reach some consensuses during the conference.) To understand what your legal rights and options are, be sure to get skillful advice from an experienced Maryland divorce lawyer.
Although the central issue driving a recent divorce case from Prince George’s County was child custody, the lessons it teaches are universal across many family law disputes.
A.W. and B.W.’s was a short-term marriage. They wed in 2014, had a child in 2018, and the wife filed for divorce in 2020. In early April 2021, the court convened a remote settlement conference over Zoom.
During the video conference, the wife testified that she and the husband had agreed on terms of child support, custody, visitation, and alimony. As the conference proceeded, a disagreement arose regarding custody, but the spouses continued with the conference.
The court ordered the spouses’ lawyers to prepare a consent order (reflecting the terms of the spouses’ agreement,) which the judge would sign. However, issues persisted between the two sides, and no consent order was ever entered. (Specifically, although the husband agreed to a 4:3 custody schedule, he objected to the wife being labeled as the “primary physical” parent, instead insisting that the arrangement be labeled as “joint physical” custody.)
Ultimately, the case proceeded to trial on all the issues. At the end of the trial, the court entered a divorce judgment. Some of the terms in the judgment were more favorable to the wife than the terms of the purported agreement the spouses reached during the Zoom conference.
Any Agreement Was ‘Null and Void’
The husband appealed but he was unsuccessful. The appeals court pointed out that the trial judge clearly informed the husband that, “whatever happened when you were in front of [the settlement hearing judge], that you and your wife did not execute an agreement, therefore, you have no agreement.” The husband indicated his understanding that any agreement from the conference “was null and void.”
In other words, the husband had repeatedly stated before the trial judge that there was no agreement but later argued on appeal that the trial court should not have adjudicated certain issues because the spouses had a binding settlement agreement. The court rejected that contention, declaring the husband “acquiesced” to the trial and “specifically stated that there was no agreement.” As a result, “he cannot now argue that the parties had an enforceable agreement.”
Whether you’re in a pretrial settlement conference or merits hearing, a knowledgeable lawyer can aid you in protecting and advancing your positions and interests. The diligent Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC offer our clients effective advocacy, thoughtful solutions, and personalized service. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation