A client came in with a 1991 divorce decree with an unusual provision that required him to pay his ex-wife fifty percent of any inheritance he might receive from his parents in the future.
Now, with his mother recently deceased, the client was about to receive a sizable inheritance, and he questioned whether he really had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a woman he’d barely seen in over three decades.
We had some bad news for our client.
While inheritances are non-marital assets, and the courts cannot award one party’s non-marital assets to the other party, there is a long line of cases that allows parties to voluntarily agree to do things the court could not do on its own.
This was obviously one of those cases, and even though the parties had agreed to a very strange and unfair provision, the courts will typically uphold such divorce settlements.
Strike one for our client.
In addition, motions to correct unfair and typically unenforceable provisions need to be brought within a reasonable period of time. There is even a legal doctrine that deems litigants to have effectively waived their objections to unfair provisions if they wait too long. This provision had been around for 31 years, a very long time indeed.
To avoid a third-strike scenario, we researched several theories to contest the enforcement of this unfair provision. Some theories were tossed out as ineffective. Others were marginal at best. And then we discovered a unique case that at least gave us an argument we could stand on.
After hearing both arguments, the Judge took the attorneys aside and informed us that neither argument was an obvious winner; he could see both sides. He further stated that he expected whatever party he ruled against to appeal—an expensive and time-consuming process. He recommended we try to settle before he handed down his ruling.
This pronouncement created enough doubt that, within minutes of the hearing, true negotiations were had.
In short, even though our creative argument wasn’t a home run in the traditional sense, a base hit won this game. We managed client expectations, found a working solution, prepared great legal arguments, maintained respectful communications with opposing counsel, and secured a highly favorable settlement for a client who came in with very little hope.