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Appellate Division Upholds Marital Settlement Agreement Executed Before Divorce

September 19, 2017

WILLIAM H. MONE reports on a recent decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

A New Jersey woman learned that her husband was having an affair and retained counsel to draft a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) in connection with an eventual divorce proceeding.  The wife’s attorney drafted the MSA, sent it to the husband for his signature, and advised him of his right to seek independent legal advice regarding the terms of the Agreement.  The MSA disproportionately favored the wife, as it gave her sole ownership of the marital home, the parties’ retirement account, and sole legal custody of the children of the marriage.  The MSA allocated the outstanding mortgage balance on the marital home and much of the marital debt to the husband.

The husband signed the MSA without reading it or seeking legal advice three days after he received it.  Four days later, the wife’s attorney filed a complaint for divorce, and the husband waived his right to file an answer or counterclaim to the complaint without seeking legal advice of his own.  The Court entered the judgment of divorce incorporating the terms of the MSA therein less than two months later. 

Over a year later, the husband filed a motion to vacate the judgment of divorce and the terms of the MSA, claiming that he was fraudulently induced into signing the MSA and that the MSA was executed prior to the divorce action.  The terms of the MSA were grossly unfair. He argued that the wife had forced him to sign the MSA as a condition to remaining married and that the MSA was an unenforceable “mid-marriage” agreement because it was executed before the divorce action commenced and because the parties continued to live and vacation together for a few months after the entry of divorce judgment. The Court denied the husband’s motion, and the husband appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s denial of the husband’s motion, initially noting that it was untimely. Substantively, the Appellate Division rejected the husband’s argument that the MSA was an unenforceable “mid-marriage” agreement because there was no credible evidence that the parties intended to remain married after the execution of the MSA, despite the fact that they lived together and vacationed together briefly thereafter. 

The Appellate Division further dismissed the husband’s claim that the wife forced him to sign the MSA as a condition to remaining married due to a lack of evidence.  Finally, the Appellate Division held that the husband’s claim that the MSA was grossly unfair was undermined by the fact that he deliberately chose not to read the MSA before signing it and that he declined to retain counsel, despite being advised of his right to do so on two occasions.  

Please contact William H. Mone if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.