New York Court Discusses Enforceability of Separation and Settlement Agreements

One of the most contentious issues in most divorces is how assets should be divided. In some cases, though, parties are able to come to an agreement independently. Separation and settlement agreements will typically be enforced by the New York courts, but they can be set aside if they are deemed unconscionable or were not entered into willingly. This was demonstrated in a recent New York opinion in which the court deemed a settlement agreement a wife signed without legal representation void. If you are interested in seeking a divorce, it is smart to meet with a New York divorce lawyer as soon as possible.

Facts of the Case and Procedural History

It is reported that the husband and wife married in 2007 and had three children. The husband, upon discovering the wife’s extramarital affair, clandestinely consulted an attorney in March 2020 to draft the agreement. In April 2020, the husband orchestrated a meeting at the marital home, during which he presented the agreement to the wife and recorded the interaction on a laptop. The husband presented two options to the wife: signing the agreement that day or facing a contentious divorce.

Allegedly, the husband informed her that, upon signing, she had to leave the marital home due to financial constraints. Despite minimal time spent reviewing the agreement and the husband’s suggestion of seeking legal advice, the wife signed the agreement, and a notary public, arranged by the husband, notarized it. The wife subsequently initiated legal proceedings to set aside the agreement. The trial court ruled that the agreement was void and unenforceable, after which the husband appealed.

Enforceability of Separation and Settlement Agreements

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, deeming the agreement void and unenforceable. The court noted judicial review should be employed cautiously when assessing separation agreements and emphasized parties are encouraged to resolve their differences independently during property settlement negotiations. The court clarified, however, that despite the general inclination to uphold settlement agreements, they may be invalidated if the challenging party can demonstrate that the agreement resulted from fraud, duress, or other inequitable conduct.

In the subject case, the court found that the settlement agreement was properly set aside on the grounds of both unconscionability and duress.

Addressing unconscionability first, the court stated that a separation agreement should be invalidated if it is so unequal that it would shock the conscience and confound the judgment of any person of common sense. In this case, the husband, with legal assistance, presented an agreement that, among other things, provided the wife with limited financial support and deprived her of interest in substantial assets. The court considered the lack of legal representation for the wife during the agreement’s signing as a factor, concluding that the terms would indeed shock the conscience, particularly given the husband’s significant earnings and the wife’s unemployment.

Moving to the issue of duress, the court noted that an agreement could be voidable if a party was forced into it through wrongful threats. Here, the court emphasized the husband’s dominant role during the meeting, where the wife, emotionally distraught, was presented with threats of losing custody, public exposure of her affair, and potential criminal prosecution. As such, the court found that the husband’s conduct deprived the wife of her free will.

Talk to a Skilled New York Attorney

While parties are permitted to develop their own separation agreements in divorce actions, such agreements may be deemed unenforceable if they are unconscionable or were signed under duress. If you wish to legally end your marriage, it is smart to talk to an attorney about your rights.  Ksenia Rudyuk is a skilled New York divorce lawyer who can assess your case and inform you of your options for seeking a favorable outcome. You can reach Ms. Rudyuk by using the online form or by calling 212-706-2001 to arrange a meeting.

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