The agreement is finally signed. The ink is drying. The divorcing parties want to let out a big sigh that it’s finally over. But is it?

Last month, I wrote that there is no such thing as a gentleman’s agreement, but what about when you have a signed and duly acknowledged agreement?

Good lawyering is, among other things, the art of utilizing words in the most poignant and effective manner. Words, sentences, and terms are carefully calibrated; their misuse can have a deleterious effect. Every word present can count. Every word missing can count. Details matter!

Even a written and signed contract is not always as enforceable as people often think. When terms are included that are against public policy, those terms hold no weight.

An example of this relates to custody. Everything pertaining to custody is subject to court review and approval. Some divorcing parties are resistant to court. They want everything completely private—between themselves and their mediator and/or select arbitrator only—with no court interference. Regarding custody issues, however, the court is the parens patriae (a doctrine that grants the inherent power and authority of the state to protect persons who are legally unable to act on their own behalf), and they cannot be divested of that authority. The court cannot be written out of the agreement. Similarly, naming a guardian for a child in an agreement is likely to be unenforceable.

On a further note, parents cannot assign their decision-making authority to third parties. It is common for parties to erroneously write in their agreement something like the following: “If the parties disagree regarding health-related issues, the child’s treating physician shall make the decision; if the parties disagree regarding the child’s educational needs, the child’s principal shall make the decision.” Clauses such as these would not be upheld. The respective physician, principal, etc. can assist the parties in coming to decisions but cannot be the ultimate decision makers.

With regards to support, maintenance cannot be waived if the result is that one of the parties will become a “public charge,” meaning eligible for public assistance. This is, obviously, upsetting where one of the parties makes a significant amount of cash off the books and indicates on their tax returns that they are making nearly nothing, rendering them eligible for many government assisted programs, and the other spouse is paying taxes on their total income. This can create an unfair imbalance in that the tax paying spouse may be obligated to pay maintenance to the spouse skirting tax laws, and this cannot be waived.

Child support is a biggie! A divorce agreement waiver of child support will not be enforced if the needs of the children are not being met; and if parties indicate that they opt out of modifying child support if there is a substantial change in circumstances, the court is likely to hold the “opt-out” unenforceable when a “substantial change in circumstances” rolls around.

Agreements that resolve divorce often reflect a delicate balance among issues of custody, support, and equitable distribution. Apples are often exchanged for apples, and they are also exchanged for oranges. For example maintenance, child support, and equitable distribution all boil down to money and monetary values and exchanges. A little less in one category being exchanged for a little more in another category would be like apples being exchanged for apples. Sometimes, however, the parties barter things like mitigated support obligations being exchanged for the ability of one party to relocate with the children a greater distance away from the other parent; that would be more akin to apples being exchanged for oranges.

If part(s) of the agreement are later determined unenforceable, that can grossly affect the equilibrium of the agreement the parties initially agreed to voluntarily, believing they knew the values and rights they were exchanging in a concrete way. It can lead to a windfall for one party, and the other party being forced to give up significantly more than they anticipated and bargained for.

Independent covenant and severance clauses are staples in all the agreements to ensure that, if parts of the agreement are held to be unenforceable, the remainder of the agreement stays intact. However, in the worst-case scenario, a faux pas can invalidate the entire agreement.

For example, as it relates to the bigger all-encompassing picture, an agreement that mandates the divorce or mandates that the divorce not transpire violates public policy and can invalidate the whole agreement. In this scenario, even a severance clause cannot yield a messianic salvation for the agreement.

A large majority of people have no patience to read through dense and tedious agreements. However, it is critical that the divorcing parties perform the painstaking task of reading their agreement and understanding its provisions, consequences, and enforceability in totality.

First and foremost, my goal is to inform clients of the law so that they understand what they are agreeing to along with any accompanying positive and negative repercussions. I present the options and advise clients what I think the most appropriate options are for their particular situation. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
Offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Phone: (646) 884-2324