Do you need a lawyer to review your divorce agreement?

The short answer to this question is, technically: “no.”

Pennsylvania courts will uphold and enforce bad agreements if they comply with certain contract principles. In other words, you can’t come to court after signing a bad deal on the argument that it’s not fair (well, you can, but you won’t win). What’s more, the arguments for getting out of a bad deal are extremely difficult—and expensive—to win.

In my almost 16 years of practice, I have never been involved in a case where the court overturned an agreement, even when it seems grossly unfair.

What I have seen are numerous cases where parties spend thousands of dollars arguing over what a bad agreement means.

In one case, the parties agreed to sell a house and “split” the proceeds. Good start. However, the parties could not agree on who should list the house, what the list price should be, how to reduce that list price if the house didn’t sell, or what to do with the money once it did. And one party ended up shelling out thousands on the advice of a realtor to fetch a better sale price; at closing, he wanted to be reimbursed, but the agreement was silent on that point. The parties ended up in trial over these arguments.

In another case, the parties agreed to divide the husband’s interest in a pension. Great; but, when it came time to tell the pension plan what they agreed to, numerous problems arose: what part of the husband’s service to the employer was being included in the “split”? Was the wife entitled to any death or survivor benefits? The pension plan also had options that would allow the wife to establish her own pension benefit; is this what the parties meant by “splitting” the pension? Again, the parties ended up in trial over these disputes.

In yet another case, the parties said that they would divide certain assets “equally,” but not when that would happen. After signing the agreement, the parties procrastinated; of course, the stock market went up, certain assets were worth more, and the parties ended up in trial arguing over who got the benefit of that market growth.

In another case, the parties used the word “spousal support,” which has a specific legal meaning, to refer to what was really “alimony,” which has a different legal meaning. Again, that matter ended up in trial.

There is even a Pennsylvania case that says the word “alimony” as used in an agreement actually meant child support. That matter went all the way to the appeals court because the agreement was poorly written.

So, do you need a lawyer to draft or review your divorce agreement?

I would suggest that you do. And the attorneys at Gentile, Horoho & Avalli have hundreds of years of combined experience helping clients avoid these and myriad other mistakes that will cost exponentially more without the help of an experienced attorney at the drafting stage of an agreement.


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