New Jersey Court Rules Marital Separation Agreement is Not a Mid-Marriage Agreement
October 20, 2017
In a recent New Jersey divorce decision, the defendant tried to get a divorce judgment vacated because it incorporated an unenforceable marital separation agreement. He claimed that it was an unconscionable, unjust, and inequitable mid-marriage agreement and that his spouse fraudulently induced him to sign it.
The wife found out that the husband was having an affair and asked an attorney to draft a marital separation agreement. The attorney sent the agreement to the husband and let him know he had the right to ask an attorney of his own for advice before signing it. The agreement gave the wife sole legal custody of the couple’s three kids. It provided that the husband would have parenting time on alternative weekends and when the parties mutually agreed.
The couple jointly owned and operated a marketing business, from which the husband was to pay alimony to the wife. The wife would get their home, retirement accounts, and a joint brokerage account. The husband got a car and had responsibility for the debt he’d incurred as well as their remaining mortgage debt.
The husband signed the marital separation agreement without getting an attorney’s advice. Two months after that, he received a divorce complaint. He again signed a waiver of answer and consented to the divorce judgment without getting an attorney’s advice. The judgment was filed.
The couple lived together, had sex, and took family vacations for several more months in spite of their divorce. However, they also started dating others. The husband moved out of the house seven months after the divorce and moved into the pool house on the marital property. Three months after that, he transferred the retirement accounts to the wife. Four months after that, he moved off the property.
About 15 months post-divorce, the husband moved to vacate the divorce judgment and set aside the marital separation agreement. The trial judge denied his motion and request for a hearing about the validity of the marital separation agreement. He held that the agreement wasn’t an unenforceable mid-marriage agreement. The wife already wanted a divorce when her lawyer sent the document to the defendant for signature. The defendant was advised to get an attorney, but he didn’t retain one to review the documents.
The husband claimed that the separation agreement had to be set aside because his wife had fraudulently induced him to sign it as a condition to saving their relationship when she found out he was having an affair. The defendant argued there were exceptional and compelling circumstances that compelled the agreement to be modified. The appellate court disagreed.
It explained that those divorcing can apply under Rule 4:50-1 to vacate a separation agreement when it was obtained through misconduct, misrepresentation, or fraud. However, the relief needs to be sought within one year of the judgment being entered. The purpose is to obtain equity for exceptional circumstances.
The appellate court further explained that mid-marriage agreements are unenforceable because they’re considered inherently coercive. Generally, one of the parties wants the marriage to survive without reservation at the time they enter into it. In this case, the lower court found there was no deception to get the defendant to sign the marital settlement agreement. There were no facts to support his claim that he’d signed because the wife imposed it as a condition to saving the marriage. The fact that he’d failed to get an attorney and transferred his retirement accounts also belied his claim the agreement should be invalidated. The lower court’s ruling was affirmed.
If you are considering a divorce in Bergen County, and you are concerned about property distribution or your children, it is important to retain an experienced and aggressive family law attorney to seek an appropriate outcome. Contact the lawyers of Leopold Law at (201) 345-5907 or through our online form. We have attorneys available who can handle all aspects of a divorce.