Matrimonial Settlement Agreements Must Be Clear, In Writing, and Preferably Filed with the Court

Figueroa v. Figueroa

Docket No. A-0043-19T2

Decided September 28, 2020

Submitted by New Jersey Family Law Firm, Hark and Hark.

In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division reviewed a trial court’s ruling denying an application to modify the parties’ Matrimonial Settlement Agreement (MSA) because defendant did not read it before signing and failed to demonstrate a change in circumstances pursuant to Lepis.

In Figueroa, the parties were divorced in July 2015. The Judgment of Divorce entered on that date incorporated a comprehensive, sixteen-page, signed and notarized MSA. Defendant did not appear in court on the date of the hearing.

In April 2019, defendant moved to modify twenty-three provisions of the MSA. In a supporting certification, defendant stated he was unrepresented by counsel during the matrimonial proceedings and he did not read the MSA before he signed it. In addition, defendant stated there were “significant changes of circumstances” that required the modification. However, his only assertion of a change in circumstances was that the parties’ two children were almost four years older than they were at the time of the divorce.

The trial judge stated defendant’s current motion alleges that he was deceived during the divorce proceedings and otherwise did not understand what he was signing. However, defendant offers no proof of same. Defendant seeks to modify the MSA by essentially rewriting it. Defendant argues that the aging of the children is a substantial change in circumstances that justifies a modification of the property settlement agreement.

Defendant appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion.  In support of this contention, he included ten pages of “facts” in which he describes events that took place during the marriage and after the divorce that he believes require a revision of essentially every term of the MSA.  However, the only significant change in circumstances that defendant alleged occurred after the signing of the MSA was that the children were now four years older – insufficient grounds alone to modify the MSA.

This case is important for the use of consent orders when coming to agreements in divorce and family cases.  The agreements must be clear, in writing, and preferably filed with the court.  Without a signed agreement, it is very difficult to seek a modification.  Also, it is important to read and understand the agreement you are signing.  If you do not understand every part of it or have questions, you need to contact a family lawyer.  Further, once an agreement is in writing, to seek a modification, one has to demonstrate a significant non-temporary change in circumstances.  As seen above, you need to show more than just the passage of time in order to obtain a modification of child support.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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