Oftentimes parties will sign an agreement settling all issues in their divorce matter only for one party to subsequently try to back away from those terms for any number of reasons. Is it just that easy for a party to essentially change its mind? The simple answer is generally no. New Jersey has a strong public policy favoring the enforcement of fair and equitable agreements entered into on a consensual and voluntary basis. If the agreement is somehow the product of fraud, unconscionable or otherwise demonstrates one party’s effort to take advantage of the other, then the law provides the wronged party with an opportunity to "set aside" or "vacate" the agreement.
What about those cases where there is no such wrongdoing? Since marital settlement agreements are contracts and, as a result, generally enforced, Courts in this State will look to the terms of the agreement and apply basic contractual principles when addressing one party’s claim as to the agreement’s (or that provision’s) enforceability. For instance, where the agreement’s language is unambiguous and the Court is called upon to interpret the terms at issue, the Court will not consider external (or "parol") evidence, such as, perhaps, oral discussions had at the time of the agreement’s signing. It will simply apply and interpret the terms before it.
This was the case in Dell’Osa v. Dell’Osa, a recent, unpublished (not precedential) Appellate Division decision where the husband claimed that the trial court improperly divided the parties’ retirement accounts because his accounts were comprised of pre-tax funds while the wife’s were comprised of after-tax funds. The husband claimed that, as a result of this account structure, two Orders (known as Qualified Domestic Relations Orders or "QDROs") were needed to fairly divide the accounts, rather than just the Court dividing the accounts without such an Order to his claimed monetary disadvantage.
Affirming the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division found the settlement agreement language unambiguous as to this issue, finding that the agreement merely acknowledged the pre-tax and after-tax retirement contributions of the parties without requiring any equitable distribution to factor in a tax adjustment. In its affirmance, the Appellate Division emphasized the notion that "A court may not make a better contract for either party than the one the parties drafted." The Court also looked to other terms of the agreement in concluding that its interpretation of the unambiguous language was consistent with the terms of the agreement as a whole.