NJ Appellate Court Affirms Enforcement of Marital Settlement Agreement

M.L. v. P.L.

Docket No. A-2878-22

Decided May 22, 2024

Submitted by New Jersey Divorce Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division of New Jersey affirmed a trial court’s order enforcing a the Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) despite Defendant later claiming that her mental incapacity due to medical conditions preventing her from understanding the provisions of the MSA.

In M.L. v. P.L., The parties were married in 1983 and have one adult daughter together. When plaintiff filed for divorce in September 2020, the parties had been living separately for over twenty years. They maintained separate households and finances, and aside from retirement accounts, had no assets. The parties’ attorneys began negotiating a buyout to discharge any claim defendant had to plaintiff’s retirement assets and ultimately agreed on $5,000. Plaintiff received a draft PSA reflecting that arrangement, which he signed and returned to defendant’s attorney.

Article XII of the PSA, titled Voluntary Character, stated, “Each party acknowledges that this Agreement has been entered into of their own free will and volition with full knowledge of the facts to the legal rights and obligations of each, and that each believes this Agreement to be fair and reasonable under the circumstances.”

Just before the May 2021 hearing to finalize the divorce, defendant refused to countersign the PSA. The court granted the parties additional time to resolve the matter. Eleven days later, plaintiff’s attorney received a fully executed copy of the PSA from defendant’s then-attorney. Defendant had initialed each page and signed and dated the final page. As a result, plaintiff sent defendant a check for $5,000, the receipt of which was confirmed by defendant’s attorney.

The divorce hearing was rescheduled for June 2021, but as before, defendant refused to follow through with the proceeding at the last minute and stated she was no longer in agreement with the terms of the fully executed PSA. Defendant’s then-attorney moved the court to be relieved as counsel, which the court granted. Plaintiff cross-moved for enforcement of the property settlement agreement, and the court scheduled a Harrington v. Harrington, 281 N.J. Super. 39, 46-47 (App. Div. 1995)hearing on the PSA in September.

Defendant appeared pro se at the Harrington hearing. She conceded she had not filed opposition, but stated she opposed the divorce because she was “medically disabled” and “need[ed] the support from . . . [plaintiff’s] medical insurance to continue to assist” her.

She testified she did not understand the PSA and was forced into signing it. Defendant represented to the court it was her understanding her treating physician had faxed her medical records to chambers, but the court had not received them. She told the court the records would illustrate her “history of medical disability from . . . a stroke, seizure, two aneurysms, heart attack and went into a coma for [twenty-three] days.” She told the court these incidents occurred in 2015. The court replied, “[u]nless there is an opinion in there that says you were not able to execute documents or negotiate documents on May 20, 2021, that would all be irrelevant.”

In August 2022, through new counsel, defendant moved the court to set aside the judgment of divorce and the PSA under Rule 4:50-1 and requested appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent defendant’s interests. Relying specifically on subsection (f) of the Rule, defendant maintained her lack of capacity to enter into the agreement qualified as “truly exceptional circumstances” rendering the judgment “unjust, oppressive[,] or inequitable.” Defendant attached the medical records from her doctor, reflecting a visit in October 2021, after the judgment of divorce was entered, in which she self reported memory issues that “may have recently interfered with her divorce proceedings.” The records reflected that prior to those notes, defendant had last visited her doctor in November 2020, six months before signing the PSA; no record reflected a visit around the time of the PSA.

Defendant also included a June 27, 2022 letter from her doctor reflecting her history of multiple sclerosis, a cerebral aneurysm, brain hemorrhage, hydrocephalus, and migraines. The doctor stated images of defendant’s brain indicated “persistent residual brain injury” as a result of her injuries and multiple sclerosis. He concluded, “I believe to within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that she has residual cognitive deficits which can impair her ability to make decisions and understand complex situations.” He went on to explain, without the same degree of certainty, he believed “that on May 20, 2021[, defendant] would not have had the ability to understand the PSA she signed.”

The trial court found and the Appellate Division later agreed that no evidence as produced that would indicate that these medical issues impaired Defendant at the time of signing the MSA, and denied her motion to vacate the MSA.

Marital Settlement Agreements (MSA) or Property Settlement Agreements (PSA) are detailed document dictating the terms of a divorce.  These agreements are usually a product of extensive negotiations and contain a variety of legal terms made with the purpose of resolving all issues of the divorce, both present and future.  In order for an MSA or PSA to become valid, the Court requires testimony or a sworn statement to each party’s understanding of the document and that each party enters into it voluntarily without coercion.

Once this process is complete, it is difficult to get out of the agreement. As seen above, defendant was unable to demonstrate circumstances that would indicate she was unable to understand what she was signing due to her medical conditions, specifically lacking evidence of these issues existing at the time of the signing the MSA.

If you have questions about MSAs or PSA, enforcement, changes in circumstance requiring a modification, parenting time, alimony, child support, divorce and custody, or appeals, contact the experienced matrimonial divorce attorneys at Hark & Hark today.

In recognition of these trying financial times, we are reducing fees and working with clients to come up with manageable payment plans. Initial consultation is always free and we are available remotely.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing domestic violence charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties. We represent clients in all towns in New Jersey, including Barnegat Township, Barnegat Light Borough, Bay Head Borough, Beach Haven Borough, Beachwood Borough, Berkeley Township, Brick Township, Eagleswood Township, Harvey Cedars Borough, Island Heights Borough, Jackson Township, Lacey Township, Lakehurst Borough, Lakewood Township, Lavallette Borough, Little Egg Harbor Township, Long Beach Township, Manchester Township, Mantoloking Borough, Ocean Gate Borough, Ocean Township, Pine Beach Borough, Plumsted Township, Point Pleasant Beach Borough, Point Pleasant Borough, Seaside Heights Borough, Seaside Park Borough, Ship Bottom Borough, South Toms River Borough, Surf City Borough, Stafford Township, Toms River Township, and Tuckerton Borough.


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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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