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Mutual mistakes can hamper divorce proceedings

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The Hacketts were divorced: on January 12, 2006, the parties settled their divorce action and executed a written settlement agreement.

Then why, eight years later, in March, 2014, was another court issuing a decision and order related to the 2006 divorce settlement?

In January, 2008, Mr. Hackett brought an action “seeking to reform the settlement agreement on the ground that an alleged mutual mistake had resulted in the unequal division of the marital assets.”

“Mutual mistake” refers to a misunderstanding involving every party (in this case, the spouses) in a contract (here, the divorce settlement).

Mr. Hackett’s argument to the court was that the 2006 agreement between him and his former wife contained a “computatio­nal error.” Whereas the parties had intended that each receive an equal share of the property, the former Mrs. Hackett ended up with a windfall “in excess of $100,000.”

In the end, the Appellate Division of the Second Judicial Department rejected Mr. Hackett’s claim.

One factor that the court apparently relied on was that, “The parties acknowledged in open court that they had read and understood the terms of the settlement agreement, and had not been forced” to sign it.

The court cited earlier case law stating that “marital settlement agreements are judicially favored and are not to be easily set aside,” and that the mutual mistake must be “so material that it goes to the foundation of the agreement.”

Additionally, the court said that “to overcome the heavy presumption that a deliberately prepared and executed written instrument manifested the true intention of the parties, evidence of a very high order is required.”

Here, Mr. Hackett “failed to meet his high burden of proof of demonstrating that, as a result of a mutual mistake, the settlement agreement did not reflect the true intent of both parties with respect to the distribution of the marital estate.”

Our judicial system likes finality, but doesn’t always provide it. It is a tough road to prove that there was a mutual mistake and to set aside a settlement agreement, but that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to get there.

The Hackett case is evidence of this.

Other mistakes:

How long will it take?

The Hacketts had already settled back in 2006. They may have litigated before then. Did the wife, or even the husband, imagine at that time that their settlement would be challenged, leading to more years of litigation?

Many parties hire litigators and then are shocked, even after hearing the horror stories, to find that they themselves are spending years of their lives in a legal battle.

The law is clear, I am right, and the judge will find in my favor.

Basically, whenever a case is “reversed,” it means that a judge (or panel of judges) disagrees with what another judge decided earlier about the same case.

Often, a client meets with a lawyer and says, “Tell me what will happen in my case.” But the law is much too nuanced for this. Litigators spend their professional lives arguing about how the law should be applied in one case after another. Many would happily argue either side of a matter, and there is nothing unethical about this.

The point is that even judges can and do disagree with one another at times. How then, can you as a (potential) litigant, be so certain of the outcome? Certain that a judge will agree with you?

Even if the judge does rule in your favor, might the other party return to court? Might an appellate (“higher court”) judge decide against you? The only certainty is that it will take years to find out.

New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com, (718) 229–6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lchabin.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

Updated 4:53 pm, July 9, 2018
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