Why It is So Important that You Get Every Term, and Every Modification, of Your Maryland Marital Settlement Agreement Put Down in Writing

In many different types of legal or business settings, one receives the advice to “get it in writing.” Why is that? It’s because a written document carries much more weight as evidence in court than oral testimony about the contents of an oral contract. Getting “it in writing” has the potential to help either side or both sides. Additionally, thanks to something within the law called the “Statute of Frauds,” a failure to get it in writing can cost you dearly when it comes to many types of agreements.

What does this mean to you if you’re going through a divorce? It means that, whether you are creating a new marital settlement agreement or modifying an existing one, it pays to get it in written down. It also pays to have an experienced Maryland family law attorney on your side.

For an example of this concept, look at this recent ruling and you can see why it is so important to get it in writing. In 2010, A.M. and R.H. agreed to the terms of a marital settlement agreement. The agreement called for the husband to buy out the wife’s ownership interest in the couple’s marital home and for the wife, after getting paid, to relinquish her ownership rights to the property.

An appraisal was done, and a dollar amount was assigned to the wife’s interest, which was between $58,000 and $59,000. However, instead of writing the wife a check, the husband bought the wife a vehicle. The BMW X6 he purchased was valued at $63,400.

The wife got the keys to the BMW, but the husband didn’t get the wife’s signature on the deed. In court, the wife argued that the BMW was not a substitute for the husband’s payment of her ownership interest in the marital home, but was a gift the husband bought for her. (If the wife was right, then the husband would still owe the wife a $58,000 payment before the wife was obliged to relinquish her rights to the home.)

Essentially, the husband’s position was that he and the wife had worked out a modification to the settlement agreement. Instead of “payment in exchange for relinquishment of ownership interest,” the modified agreement became “BMW in exchange for relinquishment of ownership interest.”

There could have been a problem for the husband. A marital settlement agreement is a legal contract. Generally, in order to be enforceable, a contract must be put down in writing. The same is true for modifications to contracts.

The evidence in this couple’s case clearly showed that, if the husband’s story was true, what the couple had done was orally modify their settlement agreement. Generally, under the Statute of Frauds, any modification needed to be in writing in order to be enforceable.

How the law of ‘unjust enrichment’ saved this husband

Fortunately for this husband, there was another avenue to achieve a successful outcome. That was something the law calls “unjust enrichment.” Unjust enrichment occurs when one party provides a benefit to the other party, the other party “knows or appreciates the benefit” and allowing the other party to keep the benefit without paying or providing something of value in return would be so unfair as to be unjust.

That is what the appeals court concluded in this case, and determined that the wife was obliged to relinquish her interest in the home. Still, the outcome could have been much worse for this husband and he could have suffered a much larger financial setback because he modified his settlement agreement orally and didn’t put it down in writing.

For reliable and effective legal representation with your divorce settlement agreement, retain experienced Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been successfully representing spouses in Maryland divorce cases for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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