Tonight’s post about signing agreements in Family Law was written by our Atlanta Divorce litigator extraordinaire, Cherese Clark.
Imagine this scenario: You’re tired. Frustrated. Ready to get your case over with. You’ve been litigating for over two years and now you’re ready to stop the fighting and bickering. To achieve this, you simply put pen to paper and sign on the dotted line.
DONE…it is signed, filed. You throw the agreement into the stack of papers in the back of your filing cabinet.
One year later, you and ex have a disagreement about exchanging your child for parenting time which forces you to go back to the agreement you so hurriedly signed just twelve months ago. You speed read, frantically looking for the provision that resolves this custody issue only to discover that you have signed an agreement that is more complicated and confusing than helpful. Or, alternatively, you realize your agreement does not say what you thought you had agreed to.
What do you do? Call an attorney? Yes, certainly. But there are a few things that can be done before you sign agreements with no legal teeth or fail to accurately memorialize the terms you think you have agreed to.
First, hire an attorney from the outset, even if it is simply to consult about your agreement. In the long run, this will save you time and money you will spend to rehabilitate your case when you want to “undo” your agreement.
Understanding the terms of your agreement are essential before you sign your rights (or your child’s life) away in an agreement. I have seen many metro Atlanta clients represent themselves and enter rushed agreements that lack legal teeth and are ultimately perhaps more confusing and detrimental than remaining in the relationship they are trying to get out of.
Next, know your rights. It is very important to know what you are entitled to before you agree to terms that may deprive you of what you would likely be awarded if you just litigated the disputed issue.
Hiring counsel will help you achieve the likely outcome should you choose to place a decision in the judge’s hands rather than entering into an agreement you will want to modify too soon down the road.
Last, read…read…read. Know exactly what you are signing. If there is a provision that you do not understand, do not sign on the dotted line until that language is clarified for both parties. A helpful approach I frequently use is to explicitly give an example of the term applied to hypothetical facts to ensure that all parties are on the same page.
In Fulton County, if a party is unrepresented in mediation (in family law cases), he or she has a very limited time frame in which they may consult with an attorney before the agreement becomes binding. Use that time!
Completely understanding your agreement and all the terms it contains will save you money in the long run. Having an agreement with legal teeth helps your attorney help you if there is ever a breach of the agreement or violation of a court order. Stroking your signature on the dotted line could be the difference between having full custody of your son or having only illusory rights to your daughter.
Be very careful before you finally sign on that dotted line and remember- “I didn’t know” is not a valid defense…..ever.