Read or Perish: The Importance of Diligently Reviewing and Understanding any final Settlement Agreements or Parenting Plans, Before Signing

Posted By Austin Buerlein, Esq. On March 11, 2014

The recent holding in Buckner v. Buckner, S13F1561 (3/3/2014) is another example of the importance of carefully reviewing, and understanding, each and every written term in any Settlement or Mediation Agreement, before signing it.

In Buckner, the morning of the final hearing for the parties' divorce case, the parties and their counsel reached a final settlement agreement, which covered all issues of equitable division of property (including division of various properties and business interests), alimony, attorney fees, and all other material issues in the case. The parties memorialized their agreement by using a letter that had been previously sent by Husband's counsel as a prior settlement offer, modifying it with handwritten notations in the margins and handwritten terms on additional pages. The document was then signed by both parties and their counsel, after which they announced to the trial court that they had reached a settlement covering the material terms, and that the lawyers intended to "flesh it out" into a more comprehensive Settlement Agreement for submission to the Court as soon as possible.

Subsequently, while "fleshing out" the mediated agreement into a more comprehensive Settlement Agreement, it became clear that the parties disputed which one of them was awarded the Marital Residence. The Husband argued that the signed mediated agreement stated that the Husband was awarded the "marital abode," and such language was not stricken or modified; accordingly, the signed document very clearly demonstrated that he was awarded the Marital Residence under their agreement. In contrast, both the Wife and her lawyer testified that the Wife did not agree to give the Marital Residence to the Husband, rather, they agreed it would be awarded to the Wife; the Wife and her lawyer argued that to the extent the signed mediated agreement purported to award the home to the Husband, that was a mistake, and contradicted the terms that they orally discussed during pre-signing negotiations.

Recognizing that Settlement Agreements in divorce cases are construed by the Courts in the same manner as all other contractual agreements (see Jones v. Jones, 280 Ga. 712 (2006), the trial court held that the written mediated agreement signed by the party did clearly manifest an agreement by the Wife to award the Husband the marital home. Accordingly, the trial court held that the Wife was bound by such agreement, and the Husband was entitled to sole rights to this property. Effectively, the Court held that the Wife's subjective understanding of what she signed was not the issue; rather, the issue was what a reasonable (neutral) person would understand was intended by that document as it relates to the home. Furthermore, the Court effectively disregarded any arguments by the Wife that the parties had oral discussions contradicting the written agreement, as the signed written agreement was clear on its face.

The Supreme Court of Georgia agreed with the trial court, holding, "Even a pro se litigant has the duty to read a contract before signing it and by signing, the party is bound by its terms, 'unless she can show that an emergency existed at the time of signing that would excuse her failure to read it, or that the opposite party misled her by an artifice or device which prevented her from reading it []'. No evidence was presented in this case that would relieve Wife from being bound by the terms of the document she and her counsel signed." The Court also held that the Wife and her attorney's mistake (about the document awarding the home to the Husband, not the Wife), "could have been discovered by exercising reasonable diligence," and therefore they are precluded from raising such a defense.

This case is one of many examples of the importance of reading each and every provision in a settlement agreement before signing it - particularly in a divorce case, where each and every term are of central importance, and can have very important financial and personal consequences. This may be a difficult task, given many times an agreement is only reached after long tireless hours of extensive negotiations, regarding numerous different "moving parts" common in any divorce case; however, taking the time to carefully review each and every provision - and ensuring that you understand it, and the intention is crystal clear (to not just you, but also to any "reasonable neutral person") - is absolutely critical.

Additionally, as held in Buckner, this same standard applies to pro se litigants. Accordingly, it is highly advisable to pro se litigants to at least consult with an attorney prior to signing any important agreements, such as Settlement Agreement. A lawyer will be much better suited to advise you if the Court would interpret the document/agreement consistent with your personal subjective understanding and intent.

Tags: and Orders, Divorce, Parenting Plans, Settlement Agreements