Voiding a Marital Settlement Agreement

Empire star, Terrence Howard, claimed he was forced into signing his marital settlement agreement, and got a trial judge to throw it out. His wife, Michelle Ghent, appealed and the appeals court reversed! When can you get out of a marital settlement agreement?

Divorce Empire

The ruling by the California appeals court, which reinstated the marital settlement agreement, could allow Michelle Ghent to claim some of Howard’s lucrative earnings from the hit Fox television series “Empire.”

The marital settlement agreement called for Howard to pay Ghent monthly support of $5,800, and as much as $4 million a year, depending on his earnings, including potential income from his role in the Fox series “Empire”.

Terrence claimed that Michelle blackmailed him, and threatened to publicly release private recordings of a sensitive, intimate and sexual nature that would be embarrassing and could damage his career.

As a result, Terrence claims he agreed, under duress, to a marital settlement agreement that obligated him to pay spousal support far in excess of what he would otherwise have been required to pay based on the parties’ year–long marriage.

The trial court found that Terrence presented credible evidence that Terrence felt frightened and forced into signing the marital settlement agreement, which he would not have signed but for Michelle’s threatening and coercive behavior.

Michelle appealed.

Florida Marital Settlement Agreements

I’ve written about marital settlement agreements before. You can set aside an agreement in Florida in a similar way as in the Howard case, by establishing that it was reached under fraud, deceit, duress, coercion, misrepresentation, or overreaching.

There is another ground to vacate a marital settlement agreement in Florida, and it has a few elements. First, you have to show that the agreement makes unfair or unreasonable provision, given the circumstances of the parties.

Once you have shown the agreement is unreasonable, a presumption arises that there was either concealment by the defending spouse or a presumed lack of knowledge of the finances at the time the agreement was reached.

The burden then shifts to the spouse defending the agreement, who may rebut these presumptions.

The Empire Strikes Back

The appellate court in California deferred to the trial judge’s factual findings, but nevertheless conclude that the facts did not prove duress as a matter of law. The three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled unanimously to reinstate the judgment.

The court found three reasons for reversing the trial judge. First, and importantly, Terrence failed to show that Michelle’s threats and coercion utterly destroyed his free will.

Second, Terrence and Michelle had a tumultuous relationship, which included such significant physical abuse by Terrence that Michelle had to obtain multiple protective orders against him.

Third, too much time elapsed between the threat and the contract’s signing. The threats made by Michelle were in September 2011, but he executed the final settlement agreement in September 2012, an agreement virtually identical to one he had signed four months before.

The California 2nd DCA opinion is available here.