Tag: marital settlement agreement

Family Law Mediation During the Coronavirus

With most of the country in quarantine, many people are discovering that family law courts are open, but mostly for zoom hearings. Now, family law mediation has gone virtual too. Mediations join such other legal proceedings as depositions, motions, hearings, arbitrations as part of the zoom world.

meeting

Mediation During the Quarantine

Mediation is generally a requirement in divorce and family law cases if you want to ever proceed forward with trial. It is customary for parties, their lawyers and experts to meet in-person at the mediator’s office, or one of the law firms involved.

Meeting together is an advantage in that it gets parties and their counsel together with one objective in mind — settle the case. There is an unspoken “dance” that occurs in that parties engage in substantive discussions for a period of time.

Many times, a mediation does not settle until after dinner is ordered. When the mediator is in the other room spending time with one side, the other side is left to talk about the case (or often whatever else is on their minds). There is a lot of downtime.

With social distancing amid the coronavirus, family law cases and divorces have to do their mediations virtually. They have become successful, and perhaps it will have some lasting impacts afterwards.

Florida Family Law Mediations

I’ve written about mediation before. Under Florida law, the parties to a divorce and most other family law cases must attempt to resolve their difference through mediation before their case can proceed to trial. In many cases, mediation can be used earlier in the process to resolve all outstanding disputes before either party has filed for divorce.

In divorce mediation, the parties and their attorneys meet with a neutral mediator – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to try to negotiate a settlement agreement.

Ideally, both the mediator and the attorneys should have enough experience to anticipate what will happen if the case goes to trial. Drawing on that experience, they can help the parties negotiate an agreement without any need to have a judge decide the issues for them.

At mediation, you will discuss issues that are highly personal and emotional, in a confidential setting. Accordingly, there are many factors to think about when choosing the right family mediator.

Tips for A Virtual Mediation

Before starting the mediation is the best opportunity to perform a test run of the zoom app, webex, gotomeeting, google meet, or other apps you have, to test for connectivity issues for your virtual mediation. The mediator should identify the protocol and policies regarding virtual mediation.

Given the complexities of family law cases, it is common to have separate confidential caucus meetings between the mediator and the parties. In some cases, we have meetings with the mediator and the two lawyers and experts in advance of the mediation.

One of the good things about virtual mediations is the lack of having to travel to mediation, park your car, and find restaurants. Because of that, there can be a substantial cost savings associated with virtual mediations.

It is easy to present exhibits and documents in a mediation on zoom. Each attendee has the ability to share their screen to show documents and walk through any presentation.

Usually, the mediator puts each party into a virtual break-out room where the parties wait for the mediator to come to them to talk about their case. There is usually a lot of downtime for the other side at that point.

If you settle your case, the mediator will want everyone to sign an agreement or some type of term sheet of the conditions of settlement. In very complex cases, the mediator may have asked your counsel to make drafts.

How do you sign electronically? In virtual mediations, electronic signatures may be applied to the document through docusign, adobe e-sign or a similar product.

Despite the coronavirus, courts and law offices are open virtually, and cases are being settled at mediation every day.

The National Law Review article is here.

 

A Phaser-Proof Prenuptial Agreement?

William Shatner, who is best known for starring as Enterprise captain James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek, has reached the final frontier of his marriage: he has filed for divorce from his wife of 18 years. News reports suggest the Captain and his First Mate previously entered into a prenuptial agreement. But will it be phaser-proof?

Phaserproof Prenup

Beam Me Up Scotty

Transmission of the news was received this week about the divorce filing, but some sources believe the divorce process had already been in the works for a while. Importantly TMZ noted that there was a prenup in place, the couple never had children together, and neither party is asking for spousal support. Observers are predicting a smooth divorce will be transported down to court fairly soon.

I was attracted by her beauty first of all, which was an old syndrome for me … and I think I lucked out because she had so many other qualities as well. Elizabeth has a great sense of humor and a great sense of adventure and she’s very nurturing. That combination of beauty, style, intelligence, humor and loving horses and dogs and children and loving her home and making a home for us, is quite a combination.

This marriage is not the Captain’s first voyage. Shatner’s wife, Elizabeth, 61, is his fourth, er sequel, in movie parlance.

Florida Prenups

I’ve written about prenuptial agreements before. Prenuptial agreements are about more than just exploring the strange new world of marriage. A prenuptial agreement (or “prenup” for short) is a contract between people intending to marry. A prenup determines spousal rights when the marriage ends by death or divorce. This can be especially important for those who boldly go into fourth marriages.

If you divorce without a prenup, your property rights are determined under state law, and a spouse may have a claim to alimony while the suit for divorce is pending and after entry of a judgment. Many couples divorcing would prefer not to to explore the strange new worlds of family court.

That’s where prenups come in. Prospective spouses may limit or expand state laws by an agreement. Prenups are also used to protect the interests of children from a prior marriage, and to avoid a contested divorce.

Prenups can be the best captain at the helm . . . if they’re done right.

There are a galaxy of problems with prenuptial agreements too. If a prenuptial agreement includes any provisions that violate the law or public policy, it may automatically be deemed invalid.

Additionally, a prenuptial agreement cannot waive child support, and can’t set an amount for child support. Courts have plenary power over support issues, so child support amounts are determined by courts based on our child support guidelines.

Also, a premarital agreement may not be enforceable in a family court case, for instance, if it was not signed voluntarily; or if it was the product of fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching.

Warp Speed Ahead

The Shatners are still negotiating the financial terms, a source told the site TMZ.

‘Per the terms of the prenup, neither party will receive any support from the other.

The Captain has had a colorful love life previously that resulted in four marriages and three daughters. Shatner and Elizabeth Shatner married in February 2001. He was previously married to Gloria Rand, Marcy Lafferty and Nerine Kidd, and has three daughters, Melanie, Leslie and Lisabeth, with Rand. Elizabeth Shatner was previously wed to Michael Glenn Martin.

Sources said Shatner and Elizabeth are expected to soon submit their divorce documents for a final signature from a judge.

The TMZ article is here.

 

New Article: Ambiguous Divorce Agreements

Seeing more emojis? Are you confused about their meaning? For some light reading this Memorial Day weekend, my new article dealing with legal ambiguity in divorce agreements, “If it looks like a duck: Emojis, Emoticons and Ambiguity,” in the Spring 2018 Florida Bar Commentator, is now available in print and to download. Here is the abstract:

What are Emojis?

Originating in Japan in 1998, emojis are small digital images used to express an idea or an emotion in electronic communications. The term emoji is Japanese for “picture character.” Picture (pronounced “eh”), and character (pronounced moh-jee).

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 that 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. You can order your next Domino’s with the “Slice of Pizza” emoji.

Emojis have also spread to family law courts, as parents are frequently using texts, emails and social media in order to communicate their agreements and understandings about their kids.

Ambiguous Divorce Agreements

There are unique issues with emojis, rendering them hard to interpret. This is a subject I have written about frequently. For one thing, there’s no definitive source as to what emojis mean.

That unknown can make agreements between parents about custody, visitation, temporary support in emails, texts or on social media, ambiguous. Divorce 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.

Emojis and Legal Ambiguity

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.

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 available 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.