The Importance of Reaching Mutual Assent When Entering Into A Settlement Agreement

Recently, the New Jersey appellate division ruled in Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, which instructs both attorneys and those representing themselves about the importance of properly memorializing property settlement agreements so as to reach a “meeting of the minds.” In other words, the Fitzgerald decision serves as a cautionary tale for all divorcing spouses and their attorneys to clearly and carefully reduce all terms in writing before entering into a settlement agreement in order for it be rendered enforceable by the courts.

In this case, the divorcing spouses had been married for 8 years and had two children. From the time the divorce was filed in 2010, the parties attempted to resolve their financial disputes and settle the case through a series of failed mediations. Finally, on April 4, 2012, it appeared the parties had settled the case before their scheduled court hearing. Specifically, during the hearing the parties announced they had entered into a signed agreement; however, instead of placing the details on the record, the judge scheduled another hearing to finalize their divorce action because:

  1. the plaintiff’s attorney (husband) wanted to “clean up” the agreement;
  2. the parties’ expectations as to a proper child support calculation differed;
  3. the agreement was entitled “Partial Agreement.”

At a motion hearing in June 2012 to enforce the agreement filed by the husband, the judge refused to enforce the settlement. As a result, the case went to trial in 2013, where the husband, who was a pro se litigant, once again argued there was a partial settlement reached on April 4, 2012. The judge ruled that the parties never reached a “meeting of the minds” since the agreement lacked mutual assent due to the parties’ differences in understanding the child support amount that was supposed to be paid along with other unresolved financial matters. The husband then filed an appeal.

The Court of Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge that the settlement agreement sought to be enforced by the husband on the April 4, 2012 hearing was not enforceable and that there was no mutual assent reached amongst the parties (because the agreement was partial and incomplete). The opinion spelled out that the parties did not enter into a comprehensive finalized marital settlement agreement. Instead, what was presented was a working draft to the court that needed to be cleaned up and that the conversion of the draft agreement did not take place upon presentation to the trial judge.

The Bronzino Law Firm: Advising Clients With Drafting Their Settlement Agreements

Please contact us at The Bronzino Law Firm regarding the drafting of your divorce settlement agreement which should be properly memorialized to avoid any future challenges as to its enforceability. Attorney Bronzino will carefully walk his clients through the process of drafting a clear agreement easily understood by all parties involved in the divorce to avoid any ambiguities. He can be reached at (732) 812-3102 for all your divorce needs.