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Let’s talk about contracts, especially contracts and divorce. A contract has three elements to it. There is an offer, an acceptance and something lawyers call “consideration.” So when you want to buy a car, the offer is for the car dealer to sell you a car for X dollars. You agree to buy the car for X dollars. And the consideration is the payment of X to the car dealership in exchange for the vehicle. It gets more complicated when you put in additional terms, like financing the vehicle, where you agree to pay Y dollars each month plus Z interest until you have paid X plus Z in full. An important additional term is that they have a right to take back the car if you don’t abide by the contract to pay Y dollars plus Z interest every month. Failing to abide by the contract’s term is called a “breach” of the contract.
You might think it’s not possible for you to sign a contract without realizing it. But, in fact, people do it all the time. They don’t realize that a Stipulated Judgment and Decree is a contract regarding their divorce.
Your Stipulated Judgment and Decree contains the terms of your contract to end your marriage. While it looks complicated, it is simply a contractual agreement to do certain things in exchange for being divorced. The contract (or agreement) has specific terms that you then file in district court. A judge rules on whether the contract is fair and equitable and issues a Judgment and Decree giving the agreement judicial approval and authority.
This means that the Judgment and Decree (contract) is legally binding on you and your now ex-spouse. So if one of you does not abide by the terms of the Judgment and Decree, the other party can go back to court and ask the court to order relief (for example, ordering your ex-spouse to sell the marital home to pay you your share) based on the breach of the contract.
What you need to understand is that your divorce decree is a legal document. You have to follow the terms of the contract regardless of how you feel about it. The court does give you and your ex-spouse one year to correct any mistakes in the contract, or if it is later found out that either of you committed fraud upon the court or the agreement was entered into under “duress.”
It is not fraud if the facts change after the decree is signed by the court. Nor is it “duress” because you changed your mind. Duress would be if you were threatened with being reported to ICE or beaten up if you didn’t sign. It is not duress if you had a bad day and didn’t feel you had enough money to fight in court. All parties are under some stress in a divorce. You will need to compromise and make concessions if you do not have enough money to go to trial; that does not make it duress.
So think very carefully before signing any contract, in divorce or even for a vehicle. Once you sign, you will be bound by the terms, even if your life changes and it is difficult. Do not expect that you can easily get out of any signed contract. The bottom line is that even though you are under stress, you need to prepare to enter into a reasonable contract (stipulated Judgment and Decree) with a clear mind and with the full understanding that you are about to sign a contract and be bound by all of its terms. Very likely, the contract will be based on a compromise with both parties only getting a portion of what they want. It’s unrealistic to expect that you will get everything you want and the other party will receive none of their demands.
The costs of signing a contract, including a Stipulated Judgment and Decree, that you don’t fully understand can be very high. It’s almost always worth it to have an experienced Minnesota Divorce attorney look things over before you commit. If you want assistance with reviewing a Judgment and Decree before signing, then please contact Mundahl Law.