When a marriage breaks down and you, as one of the spouses, must confront divorce, there are several decisions you’ll need to make. One of those is whether to litigate everything and let the judge decide, or whether to establish a marital settlement agreement with your spouse. If you decide to create a settlement agreement, be forewarned that these agreements are generally as binding and enforceable as any other legal contract. In other words, you should make sure that you understand exactly what the terms of your settlement agreement dictate before you sign, and be sure that the agreement that appears on paper is the one to which you thought you were assenting. To make sure the settlement agreement you sign is the agreement you need, be sure you have a skilled New York family law attorney on your side.
One of the ways that disputes can arise around marital settlement agreements is when there are things that are left unwritten. When a term is not included in the document, uncertainty can enter in and allow for disagreement. Take, for example, the settlement agreement case of E.B. and A.B. The Rochester-area couple began divorce proceedings in 2004. During that litigation, the couple created a marital settlement agreement. The agreement said that the wife would receive “rehabilitative maintenance” starting on December 1, 2007 and ending on November 30, 2020. The agreement did not state that the maintenance would continue until 2020 regardless of other events, but it also did not list any events that would trigger an early termination of the maintenance obligation, either.
The wife married a new spouse in late 2015. Four months later, the husband sent the wife a letter informing her that, because she was remarried, he intended to cease making any more maintenance payments. In response, the wife took the husband to court to recover a money judgment for the remaining unpaid maintenance payments.
Unless the agreement says otherwise, ‘the law in force at the time’ applies
The trial judge, however, ruled for the husband and the Appellate Division upheld that ruling. The outcome is illustrative of how courts deal with certain issues left unwritten in marital settlement agreements. New York follows something called the Dolman rule, which is a rule arising from a 1956 court decision made by the state’s highest court. That decision stated “that, unless a contract provides otherwise, the law in force at the time the agreement is entered into becomes as much a part of the agreement as though it were expressed or referred to therein, for it is presumed that the parties had such law in contemplation when the contract was made and the contract will be construed in the light of such law.” In plain English, this means that the parties are responsible for knowing the state of law at the time of the agreement’s execution and factoring that law into their negotiations and the terms of the agreement. As a result, if a dispute is left unwritten in the agreement, it will be resolved using the law of that issue.
New York law is clear about who may receive maintenance. As the court put it, maintenance “is explicitly limited by statute to payments made to an unmarried payee” under Section 236 of the Domestic Relations Law and “shall terminate” upon the recipient’s remarriage. Based on that statutory section, the Dolman rule required the courts to interpret this couple’s settlement agreement as having an unwritten provision that called for an end to the maintenance obligation if/when the wife remarried.
Navigating the legal system when it comes to a divorce involves many things. It involves knowing what you need to achieve in terms of a result. It also requires an in-depth knowledge of the law to help you get where you need to be. With more than 30 years of assisting New York residents, New York family law attorney Ingrid Gherman has both the experience and the skill to provide you with the effective representation you need to achieve a successful result.
To schedule your free consultation, call us now at 212-941-0767 or contact us online.
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