An oft occurring issue in divorce actions concerns the enforceability of settlement agreements. For various reasons, after the parties have successfully mediated their disputes or their attorneys have agreed on terms of settlement, one spouse will balk at signing the formal written agreement prepared by the other spouse. That other spouse will then file a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. This article explores the requisites for granting such a motion.
Settlement agreements in divorce actions are construed in the same manner as all other contracts. “No contract exists unless the parties have agreed on all essential terms, and ‘the failure to agree to even one essential term means there is ‘no agreement to be enforced.’ Essential terms of a contract include the subject matter and purpose of the contract, the identity of the parties, and the consideration.”(1)
A spouse opposing a motion to enforce a property settlement agreement commonly will assert that the written agreement fails to include one or more essential/material terms. To be enforceable, a contract of settlement in a divorce action must address all required aspects of the divorce.(2) An agreement must completely identify all marital property holdings and state who owns what, what must be sold, and how any proceeds should be split between the parties.(3) Where minor children are involved, the settlement must address visitation and contain a permanent parenting plan.(4)
Matters omitted from a written agreement which pertain to the timeframe for execution of the agreement, the method for presentation of the agreement to the court, or the time and method for exchange of awarded property are considered non-material procedural items which will not prevent enforcement of an agreement.(5) Likewise, the failure to include identifying or descriptive terms in a written agreement will not prevent the agreement’s enforcement where no actual ambiguity or dispute exists as to the items identified/described.(6)
Formal typed settlement agreements which purport to memorialize handwritten agreements or oral understandings must accurately reflect all substantive terms upon which the parties previously agreed.(7) When a proposed form of agreement includes substantive terms different from or in addition to those previously agreed upon, a court may not enforce that form of agreement.(8) For example, a typewritten agreement which purports to award certain household furnishings to both spouses contrary to a prior handwritten agreement to award all furnishings to one spouse, without exception, will render the typewritten agreement unenforceable.(9)
A settlement agreement cannot reserve material issues for resolution in the future. For example, a provision in a settlement agreement that the attorneys would subsequently agree on a method of appraisal of certain real property to be transferred to the wife rendered the entire agreement unenforceable.(10) Similarly, a typewritten form of agreement, which contained one party’s proposed resolution of an essential term which was left open for later resolution under a prior handwritten agreement, could not be enforced.(11)
Even if a written agreement addresses all essential terms, equitable defenses can prevent its enforcement. For instance, fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment of facts which induced a party to enter into a settlement agreement, other wrongdoing by a spouse directly related to the settlement agreement and the matters encompassed by it, or mutual mistakes of fact or law regarding the terms included or excluded from the agreement all may prevent enforcement of the agreement.(12)
(1) Steele v. Steele, 298 Ga. 548, 549(1), 782 S.E.2d 433 (2016), citing Buckner v. Buckner, 294 Ga. 705, 708(1), 755 S.E.2d 722 (2014); and Reichard v. Reichard, 262 Ga. 561, 564(2), 423 S.E.2d 241 (1992).
(2) Rasheed v. Sarwat, 300 Ga. 639, 640, 797 S.E.2d 454 (2017).
(5) Steele, supra, 298 Ga. at 549(1).
(6) Steele, supra, 298 Ga. at 549-550(1).
(7) DeGarmo v. DeGarmo, 269 Ga. 480, 480-481(1), 499 S.E.2d 317 (1998).
(10) Moss v. Moss, 265 Ga. 802, 803, 463 S.E.2d 9 (1995).
(11) DeGarmo, supra, 269 Ga. at 480-481(1).
(12) Matrix Financial Services, Inc. v. Dean, 288 Ga.App. 666, 668-670 (2007); Adams v. Adams, 278 Ga. 521, 522 (2004); Jones v. Love, 67 Ga.App. 594(3) (1942); O.C.G.A. § 23-2-21(a); O.C.G.A. § 23-2-22.