Tag: divorce agreement

Validity of Prenuptial Agreements

Courts which uphold the validity of prenuptial agreements have singer, Kelly Clarkson, singing a happy tune. A family court judge recently declared her prenup was valid. The ruling means Clarkson holds the reins to a $10.4 million Montana ranch where her former husband, Brandon Blackstock, has been living and refusing to leave.

Prenuptial Agreement

Stronger in the Treasure State

Singer, songwriter, and The Voice coach, Kelly Clarkson, gave her fans a sneak peek of her ranch in rural Montana, where she was sheltering-in-place with her family amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, before ruling on ownership of the ranch, the judge ruled that her music manager and ex-husband, Brandon Blackstock, would have to pay $81,000 per month for the upkeep for the Montana ranch where he was then residing.

Although court papers show that he is only making about $10,000 per month – a far cry from his ex’s $1.5 million monthly income – Clarkson was then paying him $150,000 in spousal support and another $45,000 in child support each month.

Recently the family court rejected Blackstock’s argument that the Montana ranch is marital property and should be shared equally by both exes, according to the Sept. 30 order obtained by E! News. Instead, the judge upheld their premarital agreement, and found that the Montana ranch was Clarkson’s non-marital property identified in the prenup.

The family judge’s ruling means Clarkson takes control of the ranch:

“The Court further finds that the Montana Ranch and the other two Montana properties are not titled in both of the Parties’ names either as joint tenants with right of survivorship or as tenants by the entireties, as required under the PMA to create marital property,” reads the decision. “The Court therefore rejects Respondent’s position that the Montana Ranch and other Montana properties are marital property owned 50/50 by the Parties.”

The situation appears to be complicated for the pair: While Clarkson owns the property, her ex-husband is the one living there.

Florida Prenuptial Agreements

I’ve written about prenuptial agreements before. Prenuptial agreements are not just for celebrity singers and songwriters, and they are about much more than just resolving expensive Montana ranches acquired during a marriage.

Any couple who brings any personal or business assets to their marriage can benefit from a prenuptial agreement. They are important to have in place before a couple starts investing in businesses, properties, and other investments.

But prenups are frequently challenged in court.

Florida has both case law and a statute to help lawyers, judges and the parties determine if a prenuptial agreement is enforceable. For example, Florida adopted the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act. The Act requires that all premarital agreements be in writing and signed by both parties. It is enforceable without consideration other than the marriage itself.

Couples wanting to sign one can enter into a premarital agreement with respect to their rights and obligations in any of their property, whenever and wherever acquired or located; their right to buy, sell, use, transfer, or otherwise manage and control their property and the disposition of their property if they separate, divorce, die, or any other event.

Prenuptial agreements may be challenged in court, as Kelly Clarkson’s former husband tried. When ruling on the validity of a prenup, Florida courts must consider things such as fraud, duress, coercion, in addition to the unfairness of the agreement, and whether there was any financial disclosure.

Mr. Know It All

In order to beef up his claim to marital property, after their separation, Blackstock made a “deliberate choice” to “change his life” and become a full-time rancher, according to an August filing obtained by E! News. At the time, he was “exclusively using” the Montana ranch as his “residence and business.”

Clarkson previously requested permission to sell the ranch because of the “financial burden” of maintaining a property that was only being used by her ex-husband. The costs of maintaining the ranch are $81,000 per month, the court determined.

However, the judge initially rejected her request to sell the Montana site. Blackstock was ordered to pay the hefty property fees beginning in April 2021. For her part, Clarkson was required to pay nearly $200,000 per month to Blackstock, a former music manager, in spousal and child support. He is responsible for “100% of the cost” of transporting their two children (River, 7, and Remington, 5) to and from Montana. He has a 25 percent custodial timeshare.

After the ruling on the prenuptial agreement, Clarkson now has the right to sell the Montana ranch as she is the one who purchased it, according to the report. The ex couple’s divorce has been ‘bifurcated’ meaning the end of the marriage has officially been declared and some financial issues were reserved on.

The NBC Chicago news article is here.

 

Divorce Fraud in Minnesota

Divorce fraud may be the reason a Minnesota judge rejected a proposed marital settlement agreement between Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, and his estranged wife.

Divorce Fraud Minnesota

Fraud and Loathing in Minneapolis

Washington County Judge Juanita Freeman issued the order in late October declining the agreement, writing that a transfer of “substantially all” of one’s assets to the other in an uncontested marriage dissolution is a badge of fraud.

The Chauvin’s agreement apparently sought to transfer the majority of Derek Chauvin’s assets to Kellie Chauvin. The order said the couple’s agreement would transfer all the equity in their homes, funds in their bank and investment accounts, and all of Derek Chauvin’s pension and retirement accounts “except for the nonmarital portion of two specific accounts” to Kellie Chauvin.

State law encourages divorces to be settled without additional court involvement, but:

The court has a duty to ensure that marriage dissolution agreements are fair and equitable and says judges can deny an uncontested agreement between a couple if the transfer features badges of fraud.

She did not accuse them of fraud or provide any other details or motives for her decision. She did write the Chauvins’ can submit a revised agreement to be considered by the court, adding it must indicate which portion of Derek Chauvin’s pension and retirement accounts are nonmarital and “include a balance sheet specifically indicating the total dollar value of the debts and assets that are assigned to each party”.

Florida Agreements and Fraud

I’ve written about the Chauvin divorce before, and also about enforcing marital settlement agreements. Most family law cases are resolved by agreement, not by trial. A Marital Settlement Agreement is the method to resolving all of the issues, and is the final product of the negotiations.

A marital settlement agreement puts in writing all the aspects of the divorcing parties’ settlement. Topics covered in the Marital Settlement Agreement include the parenting plan and timesharing schedule, the division of the parties’ assets and liabilities.

A marital settlement agreement, entered into by the parties and ratified by a final judgment, is a contract subject to the laws of contract. In Florida, parenting plans and matters relating to the children must be approved by the family law judge. In addition, the judge is obligated to make sure child support is consistent with Florida’s child support guidelines.

Something is rotten in the state of Minnesota

Calling the judge’s ruling “rare,” local divorce attorneys in Minnesota said it adds to suspicions that Derek and Kellie Chauvin are trying to protect their assets.

This is just speculation, but it’s possible that the [agreement] was intentionally drafted to get assets out of Chauvin’s name in anticipation of a civil judgment against him from the estate of George Floyd. That may be what the court is getting at when it references ‘badges of fraud.

Other sources report that court documents highlight varied sources of incomes between the couple with Chauvin, 46, making between $52,000 and $72,000 per year as an officer. He worked as an off-duty security guard on the weekends at El Nuevo Rodeo dance club, Cub Foods, Midtown Global Marker, and EME Antro Bar.

However, Freeman wrote that under the agreement, Kellie Chauvin would have received all the equity in their two homes, all the money in their bank and investment accounts and all the money from Derek Chauvin’s pension and retirement accounts.

Funds from two of Derek Chauvin’s accounts that were earned before the couple’s 2010 marriage would have been exempt. Chauvin was a Minneapolis officer from 2001 until his firing this year. It’s unknown if the monetary amounts were listed in the agreement due to the heavy redaction. Chauvin has not begun drawing his pension, so that amount is not yet public information.

Several tax-related felony charges filed in Washington County this summer against the couple allege that they failed to claim $464,433 in joint income dating back to 2014. Derek Chauvin earned $52,000 to $72,000 annually between 2014 and 2019 as an officer. He also earned nearly $96,000 working security at businesses while off duty.

Divorces of convenience aren’t unheard of. They’re sometimes filed to protect assets when someone enters assisted living or is dealing with health problems that could result in exorbitant bills. Judges are compelled by law to ensure that divorces are equitable, but state law also encourages settlement agreements without additional court involvement.

It may be unusual that a judge would reject a stipulated agreement. Judges are happy to know that litigants have avoided any more administration of this case and a trial, which is really time-consuming.

The Chauvins could submit a revised agreement. If no revised agreement is reached and approved, the case could be tried in court. Theoretically, Judge Freeman could also divide the assets as she deems fit and is empowered to do through state law.

The Star Tribune article is here.

 

Divorce Planning During the Coronavirus and Some Good News

We have been experiencing a surge in divorce inquiries. Just about everyone has been ordered into quarantine, and living in such close proximity is taking a toll on some marriages and relationships. But there’s another reason: simple divorce planning. Also, for fans of ‘The Office’, Jim has “Some Good News” for us during the coronavirus.

Divorce Planning Coronavirus

Divorce Planning and Market Timing

For many, the divorce inquiries are taking place while the market has dropped and people are losing their jobs. If that sounds counter-intuitive, consider this: when you divorce and your assets are worth less and your debts are up, you may pay less, so now may be a great time to divorce . . . if that was your plan.

This opportunity to divorce is particularly attractive to those whose divorce was a matter of timing. Now may be a great opportunity to finalize a settlement agreement if businesses or shares of stock can be managed back to their former value after the crisis passes.

For others, the concern is about settlement terms they agreed to before the downturn and their ability to afford the settlement terms when they have less pay. Clients are viewing the current financial crisis as an opportunity to negotiate an advantageous divorce settlement.

In only days, we have increased calls from anxious and stressed clients who are confined to living in quarantine with their soon-to-be Ex and children who they have to home school.

Shelter in place orders are putting a huge strain on relationships, particularly if there was already tension and issues between couples. This is only being heightened by the financial impact of restrictions on people’s businesses and incomes and the uncertainty they face as a result.

Florida Divorce Planning during the Coronavirus

I have written about the phenomenon of divorce planning, and especially divorce filings at the beginning of the year, many times before.

The first few months of the year are known for divorce filings, January is even nicknamed the “Divorce Month” in Florida. Researchers recently did an analysis of American divorce filings and found that there is a spike in divorces in January.

The spike in divorce filings is followed by a peak in late March. What’s happening at the beginning of the new year that causes people to both marry and divorce?

According to some reports the beginning of the year and the holiday season are often a tricky time for couples whose relationships have been under pressure for a while.

Add in the intense time spent together, financial pressure, extended family critiques and unrealistic expectations (nothing worse than happy people’s Facebook posts) – and it can spell disaster for some relationships.

Planning Ahead for Divorce during the Coronavirus

For many couples, government shelter-in-place orders have thrown them into a completely different way of living, changing the dynamics of their relationship entirely, and introducing a whole new set of complications and concerns.

While some may find that working through the uncertainty brings them closer together, others are not as lucky, and have been forced to face underlying issues that may have been bubbling under the surface.

You should consider consulting a board certified marital and family lawyer to consider your options and discuss what to do while you’re in quarantine and once the crisis passes.

The vast majority of people inquiring are people who were already on the fence and thinking of filing for divorce, and now the harsh reality of being at home with their partners has pushed them to breaking point.

For those that were planning to leave, but now can’t, this is an extremely challenging time. There are also those who agreed to separate but haven’t yet done so or filed for divorce. Worse still, being locked down together is causing a lot of strain and pressure.

Some have stayed married due to the financial loss they would suffer if they broke up the family, but are seeing the financial crisis as their long-awaited opportunity to leave and take advantage of the dip in wealth for a divorce settlement,’ she explained.

Coronavirus: Some Good News

Fans of ‘The Office’ will be please that there is some good news to report from Jim. So, I’ll let actor John Krasinski talk about some good news on his home-made channel SGN.

His video is here, and includes an interview with Steve Carell to mark the 15th anniversary of ‘The Office.’

 

This is Your Reno Divorce

In the 1950’s you had to prove grounds for divorce, with no guarantee that a court would grant one. States that granted divorce recognized grounds that were nearly impossible to prove, such as physical evidence of abuse. No wonder so many people opted to go to Reno instead: the “divorce capital of the world.”

Reno Divorce

The biggest little city in the world

In Reno, Nevada, local laws allowed people to establish residency in a mere six weeks, and then expect a rubber-stamp divorce decree no matter the circumstances of their split.

The practice of seeking divorce in Reno dates back to the early 20th century, when the city shrewdly built lodging and entertainment steps from its courthouse, drawing a steady flow of “divorce tourists” looking to escape the East Coast press.

By the 1950s, by which time Reno’s divorce laws had further loosened, a thriving economy had evolved for the sole purpose of meeting divorcees’ needs while they waited — and, indeed, Reno relied on the divorce trade to keep her coffers full.

Florida Divorce

The official term for divorce in Florida is “dissolution of marriage”, and you don’t need fault as a ground for divorce. Florida abolished fault as a ground for divorce.

I’ve written about divorce and infidelity issues before. The no-fault concept in Florida means you no longer have to prove a reason for the divorce, like your husband’s alleged infidelity with a congresswoman. Instead, you just need to state under oath that your marriage is “irretrievably broken.”

Before the no-fault divorce era, people who wanted to get divorce either had to reach agreement in advance with the other spouse that the marriage was over, or throw mud at each other and prove wrongdoing like adultery or abuse.

No-fault laws were the result of trying to change the way divorces played out in court. No fault laws have reduced the number of feuding couples who felt the need to resort to distorted facts, lies, and the need to focus the trial on who did what to whom.

Back in the Silver State

The first divorce boom occurred right after World War II, with rates decreasing in the 1950s before beginning to rise again. The reason for post-war divorces was women getting a taste of independence while their husbands were away fighting.

The decline of the divorce rate in the 1950s owes to the idealization of the nuclear family, with rigid gender roles assigning women responsibility for staying home and raising children.

That the majority of Reno divorce-seekers were women reflects the fact that men had jobs that kept them home, though many women found work in Reno, either by choice or necessity.

New arrivals found an atmosphere of relaxed morals, where they might try their hand in a card room or go to a tavern unaccompanied by a man. Hotels and ranches offered full calendars of entertainment including roulette lessons, singalongs, live music performances and even bawdy shows.

A crop of male “drivers” made themselves available to escort the well-to-do, often partying with them long into the night. Dancing and flirting were the norm in many establishments, liquor was readily available and women’s inhibitions often vanished, especially since the system itself seemed to run on a winking disregard for social and even legal censure.

By the early 1950s, the days of casual acceptance were numbered: The Cold War brought homophobia, transphobia and a police clampdown on suspect activities, including a ban on cross-dressing performances.

An early bill to change divorce law was penned by women and published in the Women Lawyers Journal in 1952, proposing that a divorce should be granted when a court finds:

“that there is no reasonable possibility of reconciliation … and that the welfare of [the husband, wife, and children, if any] will be promoted by the divorce.”

In the years that followed, no fault laws began to change across the country. Eventually, there was no need to go to Reno to end a marriage, and Reno’s reputation faded — but it hasn’t been very long since splitting from one’s spouse could most easily be accomplished by an adventure in Reno.

The Time article is here.

 

Borat and No-Fault Divorce

The official term for divorce in Florida is “dissolution of marriage”, and you don’t need to prove fault. Instead, you need to state under oath that your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” According to CNN, Sacha Baron Cohen learned the true meaning of no-fault divorce after discovering Pamela Anderson’s divorce may have been caused by his movie Borat.

Borat No Fault Divorce

High Five!

As CNN reports, the movie Borat was a huge success, earning $262 million against a modest $18 million budget, and worked its way deep into American culture. Unfortunately, the film’s success came at a price, as it may have cost Kid Rock his wife.

Sacha Baron Cohen, recently told The Daily Beast’s The Last Laugh podcast that Pamela Anderson was in on the joke for the scene in which Borat kidnaps her, Cohen and that her then husband, Kid Rock, hated the movie.

Cohen says that the scene in which his fictional character Borat approaches Anderson and carries her out of a book signing caused the split:

“We did that scene twice, actually. The first time we did it at a book signing and I grabbed her over my shoulder and ran out with her and no one did anything. I was like, what kind of fans are these?”

Kid Rock was briefly married to Pamela Anderson in 2006. Cohen said that, following a screening of the finished film with Anderson and Kid Rock, he called Anderson to find out what her new husband thought of the film.

“Kid Rock saw the movie, and I texted Pamela Anderson and asked, ‘How did it go? What did he think?’” said Cohen. “And she texted back, ‘He’s getting divorced.’”

Florida No-Fault Divorce

I’ve written about no fault divorce before. No-fault laws are the result of trying to change the way divorces played out in court. In Florida no fault laws have reduced the number of feuding couples who felt the need to resort to distorted facts, lies, and the need to focus the trial on who did what to whom.

Florida abolished fault as grounds for filing a divorce. Gone are the days when you had to prove adultery, desertion or unreasonable behavior as in England.

The only ground you need to file for divorce in Florida is to prove your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Additionally, the mental incapacity of one of the parties, where the party was adjudged incapacitated for the prior three year, is another avenue.

Adultery can be the cause of a divorce, but can it impact the outcome? Since Florida became a no-fault state, the fact that, “she (or he) is sleeping with a co-worker” doesn’t hold much traction in court any more.

Some people think no fault divorce is one of the main reasons for a high divorce rate. Despite the recent legislative moves in the UK, there is a movement here to return to the old “fault” system to promote families.

Not in Kazakhstan Anymore

Cohen said Anderson told him that Kid Rock wanted the divorce specifically because of the movie, which he naturally assumed was a joke:

“I thought it was a joke,” Said Cohen. “But then a few weeks later they got divorced and they put as a reason for divorce: ‘Borat.’ So, it had some casualties.”

Cohen’s version of this story also lines up with and seems to confirm reports, which claimed that Universal Studio chief Ron Meyer held a screening of the movie at his home and that the Kid Rock became angry and ruined the night because he hated the movie.

This revelation raises a number of questions. Was Kid Rock, like so many people, unable to tell if his wife’s involvement in the film was real? Did he believe that his wife did not fight back strongly enough against the seductive, amorous advances of Borat Sagdiyev?

CNN reports that Anderson and Rock did get divorced the same month as the film came out, but the comedy film may be an unlikely cause of the divorce.

The CNN article is here.

Photo courtesy of Michael Bulcik / SKS Soft GmbH Düsseldorf

 

Set Up a Divorce Plan

USA Today reports that few people marry and then plan for divorce or death. But based on recent statistics, that is precisely what we should do. What are some things you should do to set up a divorce plan?

Set Up a Divorce Plan

The Statistics

Consider this: The average age of a widow in the U.S. is 59 and women divorce for the first time at age 30 (on average). Add to those statistics the fact that men tend to die five years before their spouses (76 for men versus 81 for women).

Most people have heard the statistic that “50 percent of marriages end in divorce.” That statistic seems to have originated in the 1980’s. Today, it is thought approximately 42-45% of marriages in the United States end in divorce (this does not include legal separations).

But when you break that down by number of marriages, you get some interesting additional facts. For example, while 42-45% percent of first marriages end in divorce, for second marriages around 60% end in divorce. Third marriages? Roughly 73% of third marriages end in divorce.

Planning

I’ve written about things to consider when planning for divorce before. The divorce statistics mentioned above really call for you to set up a divorce plan. A divorce plan should reflect goals, and the USA Today article has some excellent things to consider.

Get a planner

While most people run to a marriage counselor, what you may really need is a financial planner. Research shows that when the “money spouse” dies (typically the male partner), the “non-money spouse” ends up firing her investment manager over two-thirds of the time.

Review your Documents

Review your trust agreement every few years; if you don’t have a trust, get one. You may quickly realize your trust is outdated and go through a costly revision at just the time when you don’t need the added headache and hassle.

Keep 401(k) and IRA beneficiary forms. The bank may lose your beneficiary forms through the passage of time and through mergers and acquisitions.

Use a virtual binder

Consolidate your financial life on an aggregator.  Think of an aggregator as a virtual binder with a vault. All of your assets and liabilities feed into this software, and you have a real-time picture of your net worth and income from all sources.

Get a Postnup

These days, the postnup has become more important than ever. People are marrying when they are older, and better informed about the implications of marriage. Many people have married before. Because the divorce statistics for second and third marriages shown above are so high, more people are looking to sign postnuptial agreements.

The USA Today article on how to set up a divorce plan is here.

 

How to Discuss Divorce?

Forget about complex divorce legal issues, the talk about who gets what, and where you’ll live. This post answers a tougher question: how do you tell your spouse you want a divorce?

Discussing Divorce

‘We have to talk’

You’ve no doubt seen it in the movies when it’s shouted out in an argument: “I want a divorce!” But is there a right way to discuss divorce and to let your spouse know your feelings about them?

To say that telling your partner you want to discuss divorce is delicate is an understatement. It is an enormous decision, one that, when raised, will alter both of your lives forever.

Unless you want a big legal battle, or want to treat each other uncivilly forever, it’s in everyone’s interest to learn how to tell your spouse it’s over. So how do you deliver such life-altering news?

Timing is Everything

First, you want to choose a time to discuss divorce when your partner is emotionally ready. Avoid those times when they’re already stressed or emotional.

This is the sort of discussion in which it pays to be patient and remember that the announcement can wait until a moment when its impact will be the least damaging.

Florida Divorce

I’ve written about grounds for divorce before. Florida is a no-fault state, meaning you no longer have to prove someone was at fault for ending the marriage. This takes a lot of pressure off of the conversation about divorce.

In Florida no fault laws have reduced the number of feuding couples who felt the need to resort to distorted facts, lies, and the need to focus the trial on who did what to whom.

The only ground you need to file for divorce in Florida is to prove your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Additionally, the mental incapacity of one of the parties, where the party was adjudged incapacitated for the prior three year, is another avenue.

Knowing that in Florida no one has to be found at fault in order to file a petition for dissolution of marriage should help you and your spouse when you discuss divorce.

Location, location, location

Ideally, you want to discuss divorce in a private, quiet space. Avoid crowded restaurants, shopping malls, or even at home if the kids are in the next room or you have family and friends over.

Avoid phrases like, “You should have,” “You don’t,” or “You didn’t.” You also need to be honest about what you’re feeling and why you believe this decision is the right one.

If you’re in couple’s therapy, the therapist’s office might be a good location. The therapist can help create healthy boundaries moving forward which can prove invaluable when the going gets tough.

Avoid the Specifics

When you discuss divorce for the first time, there is no reason to get into specifics of how the divorce will work. You can leave out the parenting plan, or any other specifics. The emotional toll of discussing a divorce is tough enough, talking about the petty details of the process could be overwhelming.

If your partner is going to be surprised about the divorce and is going to be hearing about it for the first time, don’t talk about dividing the IRA, who should have the kids for summer, or the details of your new apartment.

You want to give the person time to digest the concept, show emotion, and ask questions. Don’t make it worse by blaming the other spouse for their shortcomings.

Even if a divorce is more one-sided, chances are that neither party in the marriage is particularly thrilled about the way things have been going. With this in mind, it’s wise to open the conversation by laying the cards on the table.

The Fatherly article is here.

 

Challenging Divorce Agreements

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.

Prenuptial Agreement Miami

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.

Legal Ambiguity

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.

 

There’s No Divorce Emoji

Emojis and emoticons are popping up in divorce cases, and people are landing in hot water. My new article on emojis and legal ambiguity, which was just published in the Florida Bar Family Law Section Commentator, can help anyone faced with interpreting emojis avoid feeling ????.

Emojis ????

Originating in Japan in 1998, emojis are small digital images used to express an idea or an emotion in electronic communications.

Today, roughly 70 percent of the public uses some type of social media.  Social media has changed many of the ways in which we communicate. For one thing, social media has increased our use of emojis.

One report found more than 92 percent of people use emojis on social media. Emojis have spread to the business world, where nearly half of workers add emojis to professional communications, and companies use them to increase sales and brand awareness.

Emojis in Court ????‍⚖️

They can’t simply be overlooked by courts, because emojis and emoticons say a lot about the sender’s intent. Ignoring them would be like calling a witness to the stand and ignoring their facial expressions.

Emojis fail the ‘duck test’: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck. That’s because emoji meanings can be so puzzling, a “duck” emoji, may mean anything but a duck.

For example, a U.S. federal court recently held that a “Smiley” emoticon =) converted an email into a joke, the email meant the opposite of what it said, and a criminal defendant’s lawyer did not violate the Sixth Amendment by sending the prosecutor an email joking: “stipulate that my client is guilty. :)”

An Israeli court awarded damages based on emojis after a prospective tenant sent a landlord a text saying: “Good morning ???? we want the house???????? ????‍ ✌ ☄ ???? ???? just need to go over the details. . .” The landlord removed his ad, then the tenant disappeared. The court awarded the landlord 8,000 shekels.

Ambiguity: What does ???? Mean?

I’ve written about marital settlement agreements and prenuptial agreements before. There are unique issues with emojis, rendering them hard to interpret. For one thing, there’s no definitive source as to what emojis mean.

That unknown can make agreements in an email, a text or an actual marital contract, ambiguous. Marital agreements are interpreted like any other contract. Basic interpretation begins with the plain language of the contract, because the contract language is the best evidence of intent.

Courts are not supposed to rewrite terms if they are clear and unambiguous. Anyone seeking to show a court any evidence outside a fully integrated contract, must first establish that a contract is ambiguous.

A contract is ambiguous when its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. That’s where emojis come in, they can be very ambiguous. But why?

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. For example:

????

The “Folded Hands” emoji symbolize “please” and “thank you” in Asia. However, in the U.S. it means: “I’m praying,” and frequently, “high-five”!

????

The “Pile of Poo” emoji is a pun on the Japanese word for excrement (unko), which starts with the same “oon” sound as the word for “luck” and is complimentary in Japan. But, in the U.S. the emoji is used to express contempt. Strangely, Canadians use the emoji the most.

Conclusion

You can’t understand an emoji’s meaning just by looking at one. People use emojis in ways that have nothing to do with the physical objects they represent, or even what typographers intended. There are regional, cultural and slang meanings to consider too. After all, emojis’ inherent ambiguity is one reason why they’re increasingly becoming evidence in court.

The Spring 2018 Family Law Commentator is here.