A recent case in Florida shows that if your prenuptial agreement, divorce agreement, or mediated marital settlement agreement is poorly written, and the terms are ambiguous, you could be back in court fighting over it – as one South Florida couple found.
Clear as Mud
After a hearing, a family trial court judge found that a divorce agreement was “clear and unambiguous” and entered a final judgment. On appeal, the appellate court found the same contract to be ambiguous and reversed and remanded to hold more evidentiary hearings.
The confusion? The parties’ mediated settlement agreement required dividing the Former Husband’s pension, which provided:
The wife is entitled to 50% of the marital portion of this plan through the entry of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. The marital portion is defined as the amount from the date of the marriage through the date of the filing of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
The wife contended that the entire pension is marital because the enhancement was purchased with marital funds; the former husband argued that the purpose of the Agreement provision was to divide the pension 50/50, except for the enhancement portion.
I recently wrote an article in the Florida Bar Commentator about legal ambiguity and emojis. Divorce contracts are construed in accordance with its terms, so that where the terms are clear and unambiguous, the parties’ intent must be gleaned from the four corners of the document.
When a term is ambiguous or unclear, the trial court may consider extrinsic evidence as well as the parties’ interpretation of the contract to explain or clarify the language.
Ultimately, the appellate court considers whether the contractual provision was actually ambiguous; if not, ‘the language itself is the best evidence of the parties’ intent, and its plain meaning controls.
Determining if a contract is ambiguous may require the court to consider reading the entire agreement to clarify what the parties meant by including the provision.
A provision is ambiguous if it is fairly susceptible to different constructions.
Emojis and Ambiguity
Originating in Japan in 1998, emojis are small digital images used to express an idea or an emotion in electronic communications. Emojis are increasingly becoming evidence in family court, because they create ambiguity in agreements.
Emojis are also small, making them hard to read. Interpreting an emoji can depend on what kind of device they appear in. For example, a 24-inch computer monitor displays thing differently than a 4-inch phone screen.
Emojis don’t always mean the same thing universally, so there can be many different meanings depending on which country you are in. As a result, state and federal courts around the country are increasingly having to interpret emoji meanings.
Back to the Pension
The retirement provision was found to be ambiguous because it was fairly susceptible to different constructions. If the parties intended to split the pension equally, they could easily have said that the pension would be divided 50/50.
Yet, the Agreement refers to the “marital portion” of the FRS plan, a wording that suggested that the parties contemplated that some portion of the plan was non-marital.
The court found that a possible reading of the provision is that the marital portion of the plan is only that portion attributable to the former husband’s time of service with BSO.
Because of the ambiguity, the appellate court remanded the case back to the trial court to hold more hearings.
The appellate case is here.