California Family Law Attorney
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September 20, 2010
  How Can I Be Sure a Court Will Enforce My AGREEMENT Reached With My Spouse OUT OF COURT?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. My wife and I reached some agreements about support and property division in our divorce. Neither of us have attorneys. I want to write something up that is enforceable. Is there anything I should know?

A. If you reach an agreement in front of a judge, or outside in the hallway and then go see a judge, there is no problem - once the agreement is approved by the court it is fully enforceable. Problems arise where agreements are reached that don't get judicially approved at the time. Someone may change their mind. Those agreements may be binding contracts, but to enforce them you might have to file a civil lawsuit and a resolution could take months or years. What you want is a judgment or an order, in order to be sure you've really resolved the matter.

If a case has already been filed and so is "pending", and whether you have attorneys or not, if you and your wife reach an agreement on any issue outside of court and you want to be sure that she can't back out of it before it is signed by a Judge and becomes an order, it is essential that you make reference to California Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 in any written agreement you prepare.

The terms of all types of agreements that you reach as an incident to pending family law litigation must be independently approved by a court commissioner or judge. Usually these judicial officers just want to know that both parties are in agreement, and will not substitute their opinions for what you've decided, but not always. Particularly where children are involved, judges have an independent obligation to ensure that a child's best interests are protected. Still, judges will not usually reject your agreements - however, if one side backs out before the agreement becomes an order or a judgment, when children are involved a court may be more inclined to refuse to enter the disputed order than it would be if the issues involved property division, debts, or spousal support.

Often times people reach agreements in the hallway outside the courtroom, and then come into court and tell the judge what their agreement is - once that agreement is 'on the record', most courts are going to enforce it. Those agreements often require, however, some further writing like a stipulation and it when the stipulation is presented days or weeks later that the other party may have changed their mind. You now need to enforce that agreement, possibly by a Motion under CCP 664.6.

The problem also arises when cases get settled away from court, during the lunch break, or when the agreement doesn't get put on the record for any number of reasons. Maybe they won't sign some other document that the signed agreement contemplated or obligated them to comply with.

Any agreement you reach with anyone is a contract if certain conditions are met. Unfortunately, failure to abide by such promises may only give rise to a claim for breach of contract under civil law - which is pretty worthless in family law proceedings because you have to file an independent civil action to enforce them, which takes months or years to resolve.

You want enforceable orders. These are something more than mere verbal or written promises, or contracts that haven't ripened into Orders or Judgments.

C.C.P. section 664.6 is extremely important and useful for enforcing written agreements, because it gives the Court the power to enforce the terms of those the agreements as court orders, and to interpret them later if there is disagreement about what was in fact agreed to.

However, in order for 664.6 to work for you, you need to either reference the statute in the document that is signed or in an oral statement on the record. You don't need to mention the section specifically, but I recommend that the following language should appear in the agreement or court transcript: "The parties request the Court to retain jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the settlement agreement per CCP 664.6" is the optimal language to use.

Thurman Arnold. C.F.L.S.

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May 17, 2010
  My husband was HOSPITALIZED after we SEPARATED; am I liable for the bill?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. After my husband and I separated, he was hospitalized and incurred $28,000 in medical bills. The creditor is threatening to sue me. Am I liable?

In a recent appellate decision out of San Diego County (CMRE Financial Services, Inc. v. Parton), the wife called police after an incident of domestic violence and shortly thereafter filed for DV restraining orders. A week later the parties separated, and the husband was admitted to Tri-City Medical Center for treatment for a severe emotional illness. He incurred substantial medical bills.

The wife filed a dissolution action three months after that. In her Schedule of Assets and Debts she listed the debt as owed by her husband. A judgment for dissolution came to be entered several months later, and it did not assign the hospital obligation to the wife. It appears to have been a default judgment against the husband.

CMRE, the assignee of Tri-City Hospital, sued both the husband and wife to collect the money for husband's treatment; by then husband had disappeared and was never served with the lawsuit. Wife responded by denying liability, and with a cross-complaint that alleged that by sending her collection notices CMRE had violated the provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Title 15, United States Code section 1692 et seq.), and that she should obtain damages against them.

CMRE filed a motion to toss out the cross-complaint, relying on the language of Family Code section 914(a)(2), which states that spouses are liable for debts incurred by the other when separated if these are for "necessaries of life."

The trial court agreed with CMRE, and the matter proceeded to a judgment against the wife for the full amount plus interest. Wife appealed.

Once a Dissolution Judgment is Entered, Liability for Spousal Debts Ends

The appellate court ruled in favor of wife, and reversed the trial court. Wife would have been liable for these medical costs IF a dissolution including property division had not been granted, or if the dissolution judgment had assigned the debt to her, or if she had agreed to support her estranged husband while they were separated. For instance, if the parties had reconciled and if CMRE had sued the wife and obtained a money judgment against her, she would have been on the hook. But once a dissolution judgment was entered that did not assign the debt to the wife she was protected. Family Code section 916.

The appellate court also noted that an independent basis for holding wife free of the debt included Family Code section 4302 which states that a person is not liable for the support of their spouse when the person is living separate from the spouse by agreement, unless the agreement calls for support. The court reasoned that while the starting point is that spouses are liable for the other's necessaries while living separately that rule will not apply where they are separated by agreement (apparently the agreement can be verbal or implied from conduct), unless the agreement includes a promise to support the other.

This appellate decision seems confusing because the language of the statutes themselves conflict. The court continued by noting that the legislature has declared that one spouse's liability for the other spouse's post-separation necessaries is entirely derivative of the fact of marriage and not the same as a debt personally incurred by the supporting spouse. This means that "the liability imposed by section 914 can be avoided by the simple expedient of entering into a separation agreement which does not provide for support."

The only exception might be where a creditor alleges a marital settlement agreement violates the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. CMRE did not allege any fraud between these spouses.

This is landmark case because up to this point most lawyers and judges believed that spouses were liable for the necessaries of life of the other, even after separating, and that this was a special exception to the general rule that once spouses separate liability for debt ends.

Now we know that you have at least two ways to avoid this debt: (1) Obtain a Judgment for Dissolution before the creditor obtains a civil judgment against you, but be sure that the debt is assigned to the other spouse; and (2) be sure that you don't have an agreement to support the other spouse in place, at least at the time the debt is incurred. The judgment can be based upon a marital termination agreement.

If you pretend to separate, or separate just to avoid the debt, and if the creditor claims you did this fraudulently to avoid liability, the outcome might be different.

One additional point of information: Under the circumstances of this case, CMRE was found to have in fact violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act just by sending threatening letters, and of course by filing suit. Knowledge of this case can be used to back off creditors who are harassing you.

Thurman W. Arnold III, CA Family Attorney

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