Mediation is often an attractive alternative to what can be costly and time-consuming litigation for spouses seeking a divorce. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, a settlement agreement reached via mediation will generally be enforced by family courts.
Husband and Wife separated in 2004 after roughly 23 years of marriage. When Wife filed for divorce the following year, the couple agreed to take their case to a mediator. As a result of the mediation sessions, they reached a proposed stipulated judgment. The agreement provided for the division of the couple’s homes and other property, as well as custody and visitation rights with respect to their minor child. It also stated that Husband would pay Wife $2,000 in spousal support through August 2020. The document further stated that it was a marital settlement agreement resolving all necessary matters related to the divorce.
Nevertheless, neither Husband nor Wife ever filed the agreement with the family court. As a result, the court dismissed the case for lack of prosecution in May 2011. In the weeks that followed, Wife sought to have the case reopened so that the court could recognize the agreement and retain jurisdiction to enforce it if necessary. Wife said she had been under the impression that the mediator would file the document with the Court.
Opposing Wife’s motion, Husband said he didn’t believe that the agreement represented a final settlement in the divorce proceedings. He further claimed that Wife had failed to meet some of her obligations under the agreement, including providing income and expense declarations and a schedule of assets. He said he believed that the agreement represented opening negotiations in the case and that he would have an opportunity to alter it once Wife provided this information.
The trial court denied Husband’s motion to suppress the agreement from being entered into evidence in the proceedings that followed. It later issued a judgment resolving all property division, support, and other matters based on the terms of the agreement.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Second District said the trial court didn’t err in allowing the agreement to be admitted as evidence. Although evidence of communications made during mediation usually isn’t admissible, the Court explained that there’s an exception to this rule for settlement agreements. “A written settlement agreement prepared in the course of a mediation is not made inadmissible…if the agreement is signed by the settling parties and the agreement provides that it is admissible or subject to disclosure, or words to that effect, or the agreement provides that it is enforceable or binding or words to that effect,” the Court explained.
In this case, the Court said the agreement clearly stated that it was intended to serve as a “marital settlement agreement.” Thus, it was admissible. The Court further found that the agreement remained enforceable even though it wasn’t submitted to the family court in a timely manner.
If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve a wide variety of issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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