In divorce or dissolution of marriage cases, if there are any prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, the Court will have to decide the validity of the agreements but may also have to interpret the meaning. Prenuptial or postnuptial agreements are interpreted using contract law principles because they are contracts by another name.
In any contract litigation, words mean things, but the meaning could be different to each side of the litigation. In a recent case, the tiniest word had a great impact. In an appeal from a declaratory action interpreting a prenuptial agreement, the word “a,” meant the difference of a million and a half dollars in alimony to the Wife.
The prenuptial agreement in that case created a schedule of alimony that was fixed upon the filing of “a” Petition for Dissolution of Marriage (Divorce in Florida). The Wife filed a Petition at seven years of marriage, but the Husband not served. The Wife voluntarily dismissed the divorce. Then, the Wife filed for divorce again at year ten. At issue was whether the alimony would be fixed at the year seven or year ten amount. Both sides argued the agreement was prefectly clear and meant the interpretation they proposed.
While the trial court agreed with the Wife and chose year ten, that ruling was overturned on appeal. The Appeal Court held that the filing of the first petition was the fixing moment. The Court used an interesting analogy. A rule in golf that “when a thunderstorm approaches, you must end your golf game, would be universally understood to mean the first time a thunderstorm approaches. Certainly, more than one storm might come and go throughout the day, but the rule would make little sense if it were construed to mean whichever storm the golfer chooses, so long as the game is ended.”
Divorce and Family law can be stormy. The lesson here is to read, read and re-read the agreements and then read them out loud with your lawyer and talk about potential discrepancies before the agreement is finalized and litigated. Once a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement is signed and put away for ten years, there are no more chances for the parties to clarify meanings and a judge may decide the fate of the agreement. For assistance drafting or litigating a prenuptial agreement or postnuptial agreement please click, call or fill out the form.