When is a deal a deal? This isn’t such an easy question to answer in Family Court. Well over 95% of all divorce cases settle eventually. Trials are the exception, by far. With thousands of cases settling every year, then, what is that magic moment when a settlement is binding and enforceable?
The devil is usually in the details. More often than you might think, major settlement terms (alimony, custody, etc.) are agreed upon only to have one party “blow up” the deal after the fact over smaller issues. This can be for very legitimate reasons such as undisclosed assets or debts, or for less compelling ones such as negative input from a family member or advisor. Either way, one party is left saying, “but wait, I thought we had a deal!”
This is why it has to be clear from the outset that no deal is to be considered final until pen is put to paper and a formal agreement is written and signed by both parties. This way, there is no confusion. While a deal may be reached on important terms such as alimony, custody, or even equitable distribution, things can fall apart when additional terms such as life insurance and tax obligations are added to a formal written agreement.
It is impossible to anticipate every little thing that might come up, and it is essential that a “final” agreement be in writing and signed by all parties after careful review and consideration. Make sure everyone realizes this before negotiations even start, and make sure that you don’t end up spending lots of money fighting about whether or not you even have an agreement to fight about later!