Settlement Agreements vs. Judgments – Which Controls?

creve coeur divorce lawyer- Jonathan Marks

Most divorce cases get resolved prior to a trial through some form of settlement. When the parties do reach a settlement, they reduce the terms of their settlement to writing, what we call a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). An MSA may handle all the matters at issue in a divorce – division of property, custody of the children, spousal support and child support. After the parties sign the MSA, they present it to the trial court for review.

When parties settle a case, they complete not only an MSA, but also an actual Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage and a Parenting Plan (if children are involved). The Judgment will reference the MSA as an attached exhibit and incorporate it into the terms of the Judgment. The trial court must make a specific finding that the terms of the MSA are not unconscionable, meaning they are fair to each party and that the parties agreed voluntarily with full disclosure of each party’s financials.

What happens when the language of the Judgment in some way conflicts with a clause in the MSA?

The Missouri Court of Appeals recently had to address this question. In Hughes v. Hughes, the parties entered an MSA and presented it with a Judgment to the trial court. The MSA stated husband would pay wife maintenance of $2,000 per month, and that this amount is not modifiable. However, the Judgment form says maintenance is subject to modification. Clearly, the terms conflict, so which controls? The majority opinion concluded that the Judgment controls, because the maintenance statute specifically states the decree must declare whether maintenance is modifiable. The dissenting opinion would have harmonized the MSA and the Judgment by finding the MSA represented the true intent of the parties.

So, after Hughes, parties need to be very careful when submitting their Judgment and be sure that the language on the decree itself matches the terms of the MSA.

If you have questions about settlement agreements and divorce, contact us – we can help.