Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce
We see time and time again how language in a Florida marital settlement agreement can be interpreted in multiple ways. Ultimately, how the court interprets the language is what controls, and how the court arrives at that decision is based on established Florida law. In the case Wells v. Wells, 239 So.3d 179 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018), an issue arose regarding the interpretation of a clause of a marital settlement agreement which gave the ex-wife possessory rights over the marital home for what turned out to be a disputed length of time.
The former husband and the former wife divorced in 2001 after entering a settlement agreement which stated in pertinent part: The parties own the home located at 306 22nd Avenue N.E., St. Petersburg, FL, a marital asset titled in the Wife's name. There is no mortgage on this property. The Wife shall have exclusive use and possession of the home through the daughter's minority and college years (4 years post high school). The Husband shall contribute 50% to taxes, insurance, and necessary repairs greater than $500. Upon sale of the home by the Wife, the Husband shall be entitled to 50% of the net proceeds.”
Unfortunately, the former husband passed away three years later. Once the parties’ daughter finished college, the former husband’s estate sought enforcement of the marital settlement agreement, specifically a sale of the home and disbursement to the former husband’s estate of fifty percent of the sale proceeds. The former wife defended on the grounds that the former husband had breached material terms of the agreement and that the parties abandoned the agreement. She further argued that the clear wording of the agreement did not require her to sell the home upon her daughter’s graduation from college. The trial court denied the former husband’s estate’s motion to enforce, and an appeal was taken.
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order, holding, “In this case, under the language of the parties' settlement agreement, the former wife was entitled to ‘exclusive use and possession of the home through the daughter's minority and college years (4 years post high school).’ The provision also contemplates that the property will be sold. The provision is reasonably read to require the sale of the property after the daughter has completed college. [. . .] [T]he provision should not be read as giving the former wife the right to live in the property indefinitely. To interpret the agreement as urged by the former wife would render meaningless the provision regarding the former wife's use and possession of the property during the daughter's minority and college years. The language "through the daughter's minority and college years (4 years post high school)" places a limitation on the former wife's exclusive use and possession of the home. In other words, the former wife's exclusive use and possession of the home terminates after ‘the daughter's minority and college years (4 years post high school).’”
Addressing the former wife’s claims that the agreement had been rescinded, the appellate court remanded with instructions for the trial court to take evidence on this issue and make findings as to the former wife’s claims. A carefully worded agreement can mean the difference between post-judgment litigation and smooth sailing. Contact a Miami divorce lawyer to review your agreement before you sign to avoid miscommunication of your intent in settling.