When a marriage ends in divorce, the court order that makes it final covers every single detail. An important case which we recently won on behalf of our client shows that there are times when every single word counts.
In Tennessee, a divorce is finalized with a Marital Dissolution Agreement (MDA). Our client came to us with an MDA already in hand that was very unfavorable to him in many ways. It was also poorly written, which is how we were able to make a case for him and ultimately win.
Our client went into divorce thinking that the attorney his wife hired was going to represent both of them. That was his first mistake, of course. He wound up with an MDA which required him to continue paying all of the household expenses, along with $900 per month in child support and $600 per month in alimony.
When the family home went up for sale, his ex-wife also demanded the full equity from the house, claiming that it was all hers as well. Specifically, the MDA stated:
“Said Real Property shall be sold with the equity thereto being equally given to the Wife.”
If you are scratching your head wondering just what that means, you are not alone. We took this to court for our client and the judge had a hard time figuring out just this meant.
An MDA is a court order, but it’s treated like a contract in some ways. When there is a dispute on the meaning of a contract, the intent of the entire document is examined to settle the dispute. When that is not clear, the precise meaning of the words used is important.
The case hinged on the word “equally.” Normally, a legal decision might quote the law and precedents that have come before in the courts. In this case, the judgement also quoted the Merriam Webster dictionary for the precise meaning of that word.
We argued that there is no reason to use that word unless the equity in the home is to be split in equal parts between the two parties covered by the MDA. The judge agreed. We won this case for our client, and that decision was affirmed on appeal. The word “equally” means just what we all think it means, and that is what is important.
What does this mean?
For our client, this decision means that despite a terrible MDA he was at least able to come away with something. For everyone else, there are two very important lessons.
The first lesson is that you should never go into divorce without someone to represent you. Our client made that mistake, but happily we were able to win him a rightful share of the equity in the family home.
The second and most important lesson is that in an MDA, every single word counts. We spend a lot of time drafting, mediating, and arguing the details of them on behalf of our clients for a good reason. They are binding, and once an MDA is a court order every single word is important.