Amicably settling your divorce matter is almost always better than taking your chances at a trial before a trial judge who knows almost nothing about your life. Not only can settling save you substantial time and expense as compared to continued litigation, but also it provides you with the opportunity to end the case on your terms while removing the risk associated with an uncertain trial decision.
To that end, settling also means potentially agreeing to terms that are not necessarily what the law may provide. As Uncle Ben once said to a young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It is critical that you are not only entering into your agreement voluntarily, but also that you actually know what you are agreeing to. Sounds simple enough, but litigation oftentimes follows when disputes as to the terms of an agreement arise. This was the situation in T.L.H. v. M.H., wherein the parties’ definition of cohabitation as an alimony-modification event was more expansive than that provided by law. Specifically, the subject settlement agreement there provided that alimony would terminate:
[U]pon the death of either party, or the marriage or cohabitation of [plaintiff]. The term “cohabitation[,”] in addition to its meaning as construed by New Jersey courts, shall also incorporate the scenario if [plaintiff] should take up residence with any family members (other than the children of the parties) or friends.
Solidifying the parties’ respective understanding as to the terms of the agreement, it also provided therein:
In arriving at this agreement both [plaintiff] and [defendant] had an opportunity to obtain the assistance of separate legal counsel and to be advised regarding the legal and practical effects of this [a]greement. . . . The parties have read this agreement in its entirety and each of them has entered voluntarily into this agreement. They have consented to and assume all of the covenants herein contained, having read the same and having fully understood them. They both acknowledge that it is a fair, just and reasonable agreement and [is] not the result of any fraud, duress, or undue influence exercised by either party upon the other or by any other person and that there have been no representations, warranties, covenants, or undertaking other than those as set forth herein.
Post-divorce, the wife moved in with her sister after she was forced out of the former marital home due to a sheriff’s sale. The husband, as a result, stopped paying alimony, which caused the wife to file a motion to enforce the agreement. In response, the husband moved to terminate alimony based on the wife’s cohabitation as defined by the parties’ agreement.
While not necessarily relevant to addressing the unambiguous language of the agreement, the husband argued that he negotiated the cohabitation provision because he knew the wife would ultimately move out of the former marital home and in with family. The wife argued that she negotiated a higher level of alimony because she knew her expenses would increase after she left the home. At the core of the wife’s argument was her position that living with someone is different than cohabitation. Specifically, she argued her understanding that cohabitation meant someone else was, at least to a significant extent, “supporting” her.
Relying on the language of the parties’ agreement, and both public policy and case law supporting the reaching and enforcement of private agreements, the trial court enforced the cohabitation provision and terminated alimony.
On appeal, the wife argued that: (1) a plenary hearing should have been held to address a genuine issue of fact regarding the parties’ intent in agreeing upon the cohabitation provision; (2) the trial court improperly failed to addressed existing economic circumstances at the time enforcement was sought. In affirming the trial court, the Appellate Division reiterated public policy favoring settlement and the enforcement of unambiguous language, while noting how a court cannot rewrite an agreement to provide for terms better than that bargained for by the parties. The Court also referenced cohabitation jurisprudence wherein the voluntarily agreed upon language of an agreement as to such issue can be subject to enforcement even when differing from that provided by law (as to what cohabitation is, the impact of cohabitation on alimony, and the like).
In so holding, the Court noted as to the facts at hand:
Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the MSA. The agreement was voluntary, knowing and consensual, and the alimony-termination event upon cohabitation was fair under the circumstances of the case. We agree with the court’s finding that, while residing with her sister does not rise to the level of cohabitation under Konzelman, supra, plaintiff understood that residing with her sister was an event that could trigger termination of alimony under the description of cohabitation specified in her MSA. In our view, the explicit terms in the MSA obviated the need for a plenary hearing. Accordingly, we find no error in the court deciding the cross-motion on the papers.
The takeaway from this case is that while a litigant has great power to settle a case as the preferred approach over litigation, with great power comes great responsibility to know and understand that to which you have agreed.
Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey. He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or firstname.lastname@example.org.