Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce
A trend is coming up in this week’s blog posts regarding recent appellate cases. The trend seems to deal with enforcement and interpretation of marital settlement agreements. In the case Walsh v. Walsh, 5D17-1655 (Fla. 5th DCA 2018), the parties were involved in a dispute regarding alimony payments; specifically how the former husband’s gross income was to be defined when calculating his alimony obligation.
The parties entered a marital settlement agreement which stated the former husband was to pay the former wife alimony in the amount of 30% of his gross income. Gross income was relevantly defined by the agreement as “the periodic income that Husband receives as a direct result of his employment efforts, before considering any deferrals and tax affected retirement savings husband may elect to have deducted from his pay.”
The former wife subsequently filed a motion for enforcement and contempt, claiming the former husband paid her alimony based on his income after deferrals, contradicting the terms of the settlement agreement. The former wife also requested that the former husband pay her attorneys’ fees and costs. After a hearing, the trial court denied the former wife’s motion, finding that the former husband actually overpaid alimony to the former wife and holding that the terms of the settlement agreement were clear and unambiguous as to the definition of the former husband’s income. The court also ultimately denied the former wife’s request for attorneys’ fees and costs and gave the former husband a credit for his over payments of alimony (even though not requested by the former husband).
On appeal, the former wife argued the trial court misinterpreted the agreement, improperly excluded evidence of the parties’ intent behind the wording of the agreement, improperly awarded a credit to the former husband and wrongfully denied her request for fees. The appellate court agreed with the former wife on all points, holding, “Contrary to the court's findings, paragraph 8 of the MSA does not clearly show that the parties intended to exclude from income for alimony calculation purposes "incentive based payments or bonuses" and other types of income. Rather, the definition of "gross income" included in paragraph 8, and, specifically, the term "periodic income" is susceptible to two reasonable interpretations.”
The appellate court held it was error and a violation of the former wife’s due process rights to grant relief not requested by the former husband and not tried by consent, so the credit to the former husband was reversed. As to attorneys’ fees, the appellate court held, “Here, there is no provision in the MSA that specifically states that the parties waived their right to attorney's fees under section 61.16. Moreover, none of the provisions discussing attorney's fees can be read as an implicit waiver of the right to recover fees pursuant to section 61.16. Because the language of the MSA does not specifically waive the right to pursue fees under section 61.16, it was error for the lower court to deny Wife's motion for attorney's fees without considering her need for fees and Husband's ability to pay.”
The language contained in your marital settlement agreement is important - making sure terms are clear and capture your true intent may avoid expenditure of attorneys’ fees and costs in the future. Contact a Miami divorce attorney to help you determine the next best steps in your case.