The dissolution of a marriage can be one of the most challenging experiences in someone’s life. Not all divorces are complex and ugly. Some divorcing couples can agree to the terms of their divorce with little conflict, agreeing to settlements without the help of attorneys. In contrast, other couples spend years of their lives and millions of dollars in legal fees on litigating disputed issues. Early settlements can be desirable, but settlements entered into too quickly without the advice of an attorney might not be as favorable to a party as they thought. Under some (usually very limited) circumstances, parties can get out of divorce settlements after they’ve been entered into. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently addressed a woman’s attempt to set aside her divorce settlement.
According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the parties were married in 1996 and had no children. In 2015, the plaintiff/wife filed for divorce from her husband. The parties negotiated a settlement without the help of counsel, and signed a notarized agreement reflecting such. Part of the agreement included the defendant making regular payments to the plaintiff as part of their property division settlement. At the court hearing scheduled to finalize the divorce, the plaintiff failed to appear; however, her attorney did so. Based on her signing the agreement and failure to appear to object to its entry, the court entered a final order under the terms of the agreement
After the divorce was finalized, the parties proceeded for nearly five years to follow the terms of the agreement, with the plaintiff accepting payments from the defendant as outlined in the settlement. Approximately five years after the agreement was entered into, the plaintiff asked the court to set it aside, claiming that she signed the agreement under duress, or that it was forged, and that she was not aware of the hearing where the divorce was finalized. The trial court did not find the plaintiff’s arguments convincing. The court noted that she enjoyed the benefits of the agreement for nearly five years with no issue. The Court noted that a pending criminal prosecution of the plaintiff most likely gave her the motivation to set aside her divorce so that the defendant could not be forced to testify against her. The court noted that the plaintiff’s explanations for her signature on the settlement agreement were inconsistent with each other and that her testimony generally lacked credibility. Under these circumstances, the appellate court refused to set aside the settlement agreement, and the divorce is final and enforceable.