Marital Settlement Agreement
A Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) contains all the terms of your settlement. Every issue in your divorce, such as custody, support and property, should be addressed. This written and signed contractual agreement is usually attached later to a judgment form and submitted to the court for signature. It can also be prepared as a judgment; in that case, it’s called a Judgment Pursuant to Stipulation or Stipulated Judgment. Talk to your attorney about the difference between the two approaches, which may affect the way the MSA can be enforced if someone doesn’t follow its terms.
Your attorney will prepare, review and revise, and eventually approve, the Marital Settlement Agreement. Your attorney may prefer to prepare the MSA to ensure that certain procedural or enforcement provisions are in the document, rather than trying to add them to opposing counsel’s MSA.
The costs of finishing the case with an MSA are fairly evenly balanced. Assume that your spouse’s attorney prepares the MSA. Your attorney must review the MSA and make necessary changes and must also prepare the other papers necessary to conclude the case.
Be prepared for a lengthy document. Attorneys seldom agree on how much is enough: your spouse’s attorney may take ten pages for the same agreement your attorney might do in five. Focus on the quality of the provisions, rather than the number and length of them.
Just what is in this document? In addition to every term of your agreement settling every issue in your case, you can expect to find provisions you didn’t expressly agree to, which are necessary to carry out the spirit and intent of your settlement. Useful schedules are likely to be included or attached, setting forth the details of property distributions.
While your role was critical in reaching settlement, now all you can do is read, make sure you understand, confirm that all the terms are included and satisfy yourself you’re comfortable with the additional language. And ask more questions until you are comfortable that the terms as written are the ones you agreed to. You have finished your case; there is no more preparation.
Some terms are carried out immediately, such as "The 2003 Chevrolet goes to the Husband." Others are ongoing but limited, such as "Wife shall assume all responsibility for the parties’ debt to Rockbrook Savings and Loan." Still others may be ongoing, unlimited and subject to modification, such as "Husband shall pay to Wife on the first day of each and every month hereafter the sum of eight hundred dollars as spousal support until the death of either, remarriage by Wife or further order of Court."
The provisions will be grouped for convenient reference. Terms such as child and spousal support are court orders and enforceable by contempt if not complied with. Others may not be directly enforceable, and will require a separate lawsuit, such as an action for breach of contract. Ask your attorney if you have any questions about enforcement. Every provision of your MSA is intended to be binding and enforceable, one way or another.
Carefully review your MSA. Custody and visitation schedules can be confusing; clean yours up now, if needed, to prevent a later dispute. Make certain the document contains every term of the agreement that you intended to make with your spouse. Ask your attorney about every provision not previously discussed. Question every variance with your recollection of the settlement. Raise every concern you have about the meaning of terms. When you sign y our MSA, that’s it. You are represented by counsel, and you are a competent adult. Your MSA will next go to the court to have judgment entered.
If pension or retirement benefits are being divided in your divorce case, you’ll need a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. This is discussed following an explanation of the second most common way to settle your case, at the Readiness and Settlement Conference.