Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce

Time and time again, we see the effect of not having clear provisions in a marital settlement agreement. When parties disagree as to the meaning of a provision of an agreement, it becomes necessary for the court to intervene in interpretation. If the provision of the agreement is clear and unambiguous, the court must interpret the provision as written. Otherwise, the court is permitted to review evidence to determine the parties' intent in the wording used. 

The case Fazio v. Fazio, 4D17-1562 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018) dealt with this very issue. The parties' divorce agreement stated the wife was entitled to 50% of the marital portion of the husband's pension. The husband originally worked for the Tamarac Police Department which was later absorbed by the Broward County Sheriff's Office. During the marriage, the parties cashed out the funds that were accumulated in the Tamarac pension and spent it. This included premarital earnings in the account. Later, the parties used marital funds to purchase an enhancement on the new pension with the sheriff's office to make-up for the funds now spent from the Tamarac portion of the pension. 

The parties disagreed about how their settlement agreement applied to these funds. The wife argued that because marital funds were used to purchase the enhancement, the entire pension was marital and therefore divisible. The husband argued that the parties agreed to divide the pension equally except for the enhancement portion which is why he agreed to pay the wife $100,000 (to keep a larger portion of the pension). The trial court found the provision of the MSA regarding division of the account to be clear and unambiguous and ordered the pension to be divided equally. 

The appellate court disagreed with the trial court's interpretation, holding, "The Agreement provision is ambiguous because it is fairly susceptible to different constructions. At the time the provision was drafted in 2013, both parties were fully aware of the facts surrounding the FRS pension and the purchased enhancement. If the Agreement intended to split the pension equally, it could easily have said that the pension would be divided 50/50, a result fully consistent with the purchase of the enhancement with marital funds and the husband's employment with BSO during the marriage. Yet, the Agreement refers to the "marital portion" of the FRS plan, a wording that suggests that the parties contemplated that some portion of the plan was non-marital. One possible reading of the Agreement provision is that the marital portion of the plan is only that portion attributable to the former husband's time of service with BSO."

The case was then returned to the trial court with instructions to hold a hearing on what the parties meant by "marital portion" in dividing the account. This case illustrates the importance of being as clear as possible in your marital settlement agreement to avoid the headache and money that may be spent on litigation when terms of the agreement are disputed. Before you sign your Miami divorce agreement, contact a Miami divorce lawyer to go over your best options.