As a New Jersey divorce lawyer since 1995, I understand that many folks, after the fact, feel that they were “under duress” when they entered into their Property (or Matrimonial) Settlement Agreement. In fact, this is why your attorney (of the Judge) will specifically ask while conducting your uncontested hearing, “Has anyone forced or coerced you into entering into this agreement.” Essentially, it has been my experience that many folks feel that they are entering into their divorce agreement at a New Jersey Family Court House under pressure. Then later, after the dust settles, the individual feels that they were “forced” to make a deal. As an attorney who is divorced myself, I understand how this feels. Simply put, between the high emotions, broken dreams and growing legal fees, there is inevitably a degree of pressure when making a global settlement in your divorce. In other words, as an lawyer I have always found it to be effective to explain to my clients that, “you know you have a fair deal when everyone walks away equally unhappy.”

Now to directly answer the question at hand, it is very difficult to have a New Jersey divorce vacated because the litigant felt that they were under duress when the signed their agreement. The recent case of Taveras v. Prieto illustrates this reality.

In Taveras, the wife Teresa Taveras appealed from an order that denied her motion to set aside a property settlement agreement. Teresa argued that she signed the agreement under duress, did not agree the handwritten changes to the printed property settlement agreement, and did not make the initials next to the handwritten changes. The trial court found against Teresa. On appeal, she argued: she was not represented by a competent or loyal attorney; the trial judge did not maintain impartiality; and the property settlement agree was unfair and inequitable.

On November 3, 2011, Teresa Taveras divorced Guillermo Prieto after twenty-one years of marriage. They had one child together who was nineteen years old at the time of their divorce. The dual judgment of divorce incorporated a property settlement agreement. During questioning at trial Taveras stated that her signature was on page 17 of the property settlement agreement, the same agreement had been discussed for several weeks, that this was the final agreement, the agreement represented a fair and equitable resolution of all divorce issues, that no one forced, coerced, or threatened her into signing the agreement, that she waived the right to alimony and child support, and to be bound by the agreement. Six of the clauses in the agreement had handwritten changes. The first changed the child’s residence from Arizona with the father to in New Jersey with the mother. It further altered to state that if the child should decide to live with the father in Arizona, the mother would not stand in the way.

The second through fifth alterations pertained to the equitable distribution of four houses. Teresa’s agreement to pay defendant $ 20,000 in exchange for his waiver to any right, title, and interest in the marital home was changed to require the immediate sale of the home with proceeds to be divided evenly. The same was required of the Florida, and two Dominican Republic homes. The sixth property settlement agreement change added a sentence to the clause that stated parties had already divided their personal property. The additional sentence stated that the husband would be permitted to enter the marital home to gather his personal belongings including lamps, tools, etc. The letters “TT” were next to each change. The issue of their authenticity was a central issue at the motion hearing. Teresa submitted documentary evidence, her daughter’s testimony, and her own testimony as proof. The daughter’s testimony did not shed any light on the issue.

Teresa testified that she had a falling out with her attorney before trial, and that he had only represented her at trial because the trial judge refused to permit him to withdraw as her counsel. She went on to testify that she was unaware that the afore-mentioned changes were made to the property settlement agreement. She denied that the “TT” initials next to the alterations were made by her. Furthermore, she contended that she never agreed to waive child support. Conversely she stated she specifically discussed with her former attorney that need for a child support provision. More troubling, she contended that at the divorce hearing, her former attorney and her husband’s counsel pressured her into signing the property settlement agreement. On the day of the divorce hearing, outside of the courtroom, the attorneys and the parties settled their disputes. Former counsel testified that he made the alterations to the printed property settlement agreement. The final document included the changes the parties had negotiated outside of the courtroom. Teresa initialed each change, former counsel testified that he witnessed her doing so.

Former counsel denied pressuring plaintiff to sign the property settlement agreement. He further denied telling her that if she did not answer in this way the court would not approve the property settlement agreement. A hand writing expert concluded that there was reason to suspect the initials, but the court noted that his conclusion was not exceedingly reliable because he had not seen any original standard documents, and because he was dealing with two letters rather than a full signature.

The court denied Teresa’s motion to vacate the property settlement agreement, and found that the agreement was just and fair. The court noted that a property settlement agreement is presumed valid unless proved to be the product of fraud or coercion. Also, the court determined that Teresa’s claim that her initials were forgery were supported by evidence. The court further found that the property settlement agreement equitably divided the marital property explaining that she could not pick and choose the provisions in the agreement that were favorable and which were not.

On appeal Teresa argued that she was not represented by a competent or loyal attorney; the trial judge did not maintain impartiality; and the property settlement agree was unfair and inequitable. The Appellate Division started by stating that they gave considerable deference to the discretion of Family Part judges. After a matrimonial judge has made findings of fact after considering the testimony and evidence presented during trial, the judge’s findings are generally binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. This is due to the family courts special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters. The trial judge is in the best position to make judgments as to whether witnesses are believable. Therefore, an appellate court can only reverse a trial judge’s finding of fact unless they are so clearly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to the offend the interests of justice. That said the judge’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to the same deference. A trial judge is no better position than the Appellate Division when interpreting a state or interpreting the meaning of the law.

Upon review the Appellate Division immediately concluded that the wife’s argument that she was represented by an incompetent and disloyal attorney, and that the property settlement agreement was inequitable and unfair did not have any merit to even warrant discussion. They accepted the trial court’s credibility determinations and findings of facts to be supported by credible evidence from the record. The Appellate Division also rejected Teresa’s claim that the trial judge did not remain impartial, and affirmed the trial court’s order.

Please never hesitate to contact my office if you have any questions. Thank you.