Marital Settlement Agreements
A Marital Settlement Agreement (sometimes called a Property Settlement Agreement or some other variation) is a contract which can resolve all of the rights, interests, and obligations of separating or divorcing parties, and can also resolve all claims or demands each might have against the other. A Marital Settlement Agreement lays the foundation for a couple to proceed with an uncontested divorce. As an added benefit, an executed Settlement Agreement allows divorcing parties to shorten the separation period necessary before filing for divorce in Maryland.
The typical Marital Settlement Agreement covers equitable distribution of marital assets and debts, alimony, as well as child custody, visitation and child support, if applicable. Full and comprehensive agreements can remove the need for expensive and time-consuming litigation. Settlement Agreements also afford the parties greater control over the results of the termination of their marriage, instead of leaving various decisions to a judge. Finally, these agreements provide the opportunity for soon-to-be-ex-spouses to agree on matters which are outside of the court’s jurisdiction, such as college or other post-secondary educational expenses.
However, these contracts are limited in their reach in several ways which separating or divorcing parties should understand.
First and foremost, they are agreements. If the other party refuses to sign the agreement, then you have no agreement. A party cannot be forced to enter into a contract. If you and your spouse are unable to reach an agreement, then absent a fault-based ground for divorce, you must wait for the expiration of the separation period before getting divorced.
Second, parties should understand that the execution of a Settlement Agreement does not end the marriage. They are still married until a Judgment of Absolute Divorce is signed by the Court. Even with a fully executed Marital Settlement Agreement, neither party is single and romantic relationships with anyone other than each other can be considered adultery.
Moreover, even with a Settlement Agreement in place, the parties are not “legally separated.” Although these agreements are frequently referred to as “Separation Agreements,” the State of Maryland does not recognize legal separation. This can be very confusing, since a separation period is required to obtain a divorce in Maryland, but by law your status is either married or not married.
Third, parties should appreciate that a Settlement Agreement is not a court order. A fully executed agreement is a valid contract and is enforceable by general contract principles. However, a Marital Settlement Agreement is not a court order and is not enforceable as a court order.
This is especially important when there are minor children involved. In many cases, a divorcing couple will sign a Settlement Agreement detailing child custody, visitation and support arrangements regarding their minor child or children, only to have one party then breach the Agreement prior to the parties’ divorce even being filed.
If a party fails to perform according to a Settlement Agreement prior to such time as it is incorporated into a court order, the remedy is a breach of contract proceeding. If a Settlement Agreement specifies a particular visitation schedule for children and one party does not follow the Agreement, the police cannot force compliance with the contract by itself. Unless the Agreement has been incorporated into a court order, the police are without power to enforce its provisions.
Even with their inherent limitations, Marital Settlement Agreements remain the most efficient way to settle many issues, and in most situations are well worth the effort. They allow parties to avoid investing potentially large amounts of time, money and energy into a contested divorce, and to begin to move on with their lives.
Contact a Wayside Legal Divorce Attorney
The divorce lawyers at Wayside Legal LLC are experienced in the drafting, negotiation and review of Marital Settlement Agreements. If you are facing a separation and divorce from your spouse, contact a Wayside Legal attorney today for a consultation to discuss your specific situation.