Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Divorce

The terms of a Florida marital settlement agreement are enforceable and subject to interpretation like any other contract. So when terms of a marital agreement are clear, a court will enforce them. This is illustrated in the recent appellate case Rector v. Rector, 2D17-3651 Rector v. Rector (Fla. 2d DCA 2019) in which the former wife appealed an order denying her motion for temporary fees to enforce the final judgment.

The parties entered a marital settlement agreement which provided for lump sum alimony payable to the former wife in monthly installments, life insurance for the benefit of the former wife, attorneys’ fees for a prevailing party in the event of an enforcement action and a general provision which allowed for modification of the agreement under certain conditions (a formal writing signed by both parties).

Subsequently, the parties entered a stipulation which continued the life insurance policy and obligated the former husband to pay the former wife’s medicare premiums up to $400 per month (the same amount of alimony he was ordered to pay). The former wife then was forced to file a motion for contempt, alleging the former husband was not following the stipulation or the marital settlement agreement. The former husband countered that the life insurance was no longer payable because he had satisfied his alimony obligation and the new medicare payments were void because the court had no jurisdiction to force him to pay a different alimony obligation. Alternatively, the former husband moved to terminate the insurance obligation based on his advanced age and employment status.

The former wife sought temporary attorneys’ fees to defend against the former husband’s claims. The trial court ruled, “The Former Husband has met his obligation as to the alimony and equitable distribution prior to the stipulated modification. In addition, the Former Wife who was the recipient of the alimony remarried well before the stipulated order of modification. Since the Court was without subject matter jurisdiction when the order approving the stipulated modification on March 8, 2005 was granted, the court is also without jurisdiction to order attorney's fees to either party on the Amended Supplemental Petition to Modify the order approving the stipulated modification.” The former wife appealed.

The appellate reversed, holding, “We agree with the former wife that the circuit court's finding that it lacked jurisdiction over her amended motion for temporary attorney's fees was error. The final judgment of dissolution reserved jurisdiction to enforce or modify the terms of the MSA. The MSA specifically provided for modification of the agreement if in writing and signed by both parties. The parties filed their 2005 joint stipulation to modify the final judgment in the same court that had entered the final judgment with the same case number. Thus, ‘[t]he circuit court had inherent jurisdiction to enforce the dissolution judgment.’”

The appellate court further held, “Likewise, we agree with the former wife that the circuit court erred in interpreting the MSA. A marital settlement agreement is a contract that is subject to interpretation like any other contract. [. . .] Here, the language in the MSA is clear and unambiguous. The parties agreed that the former husband would maintain a $50,000 life insurance policy with the former wife as beneficiary. There is no provision included in the MSA stating that the life insurance was intended to secure an alimony or health insurance obligation, or that these obligations ceased upon the former wife's remarriage. And as for payment of the former wife's health insurance, this provision was specifically handwritten and initialed by the parties on the exhibit incorporated into the MSA; the parties simply modified this provision in their joint stipulation.”

A well-written contract can protect you from losing what you bargained for in your settlement negotiations. Contact a Miami divorce attorney to go over your marital settlement agreement before you sign it to avoid potential pitfalls.