Family Law and Contract Law

When one first hears the terms "family law" and "contract law," it may sound like two completely different areas of law, with one dealing with domestic relations and the other relating more to corporate business deals. However, the family law courts in Florida are treating agreements made by parties in a family law case more and more like contracts every year. The courts are trending towards the idea that if two parties in a family law case knowingly and voluntarily make an agreement, they will be held to that agreement in a similar way that two businessmen would be held to a contract for the sale of goods.

This concept of using contract law in divorce cases applies to prenuptial, postnuptial, marital settlement agreements, and paternity agreements. The appellate courts in Florida are enforcing this concept by striking down trial courts' decisions to rewrite agreements in family law cases. For example, in the recent case of Seawell v. Hargarten, 28 So.3d 152 (Fla 1st DCA 2010), the parties' Marital Settlement Agreement required the husband to pay the wife $65,470 and transfer 50% of his shares from a mutual fund by August 1. When August 1 rolled around the former husband still owed the wife $16,443 and still had not transferred the shares from his mutual fund. He did not have enough cash to pay the balance so he tried to satisfy the former wife by transferring her 100% of the mutual fund, which would leave him owing her around $1,700. The former wife filed a motion to enforce and the trial court ordered that the former husband transfer 100% of the mutual fund and pay the remaining cash balance. The former wife appealed the ruling and the appeals court agreed with her. They said that the parties' marital settlement agreement created property rights that the trial court could not disturb or modify regardless of the financial positions of the parties. The appeals court treated the marital settlement agreement just like a contract and required performance of the contract as it was spelled out in the marital settlement agreement. Neither the former husband, nor the trial court could change it. The husband was ordered to transfer 50% of the mutual fund and to pay the $16,433 in cash to the wife per the original terms of the agreement.

The bottom line is that with a few exceptions, any agreement that one enters into in a family law case will most likely be treated similar to a contract in other area of the law. Be sure to consult with your expert Florida family law attorney before signing any agreement and ensure that you are able to comply with all the terms of any agreement you are signing.