Can Your Divorce Settlement Be Nullified?

If you've recently divorced your spouse, you may have focused most of your efforts on achieving an equitable divorce settlement that helped provide for your contribution to the marriage and your child's financial needs. However, divorce settlement negotiations can often be a messy, emotion-laden process, and your ex-spouse may have stooped to new lows in an attempt to avoid paying you your fair share. Fortunately, settlements obtained through duress or coercion can sometimes be nullified, allowing you to seek a fairer share of marital assets even after your divorce has been finalized. What happens when a settlement is nullified, and can you seek nullification if you were threatened by your ex-spouse during settlement negotiations? 

When may a divorce settlement be nullified? 

Like other contracts and legal settlements, a divorce settlement must be voluntarily entered into by all parties involved. Any use of blackmail or coercion, or evidence that one or more parties was not in a position to voluntarily agree to the settlement, can serve as grounds to have the case reopened, even if the settlement has already been finalized by a court.

For example, threats of violence or kidnapping by one spouse in exchange for the other spouse's agreement to give up certain assets can be sufficient evidence of duress to have the settlement nullified. In other situations, a spouse may threaten the public release of the other spouse's private or embarrassing information in exchange for more marital assets or a higher spousal support payment. Even situations in which one spouse was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the settlement and wasn't competent to make a legal decision can be nullified. 

What effect does the nullification of a divorce settlement have on the parties involved?

If a settlement is found to have been obtained under duress and is nullified, it operates as if the settlement never existed. If your marital assets have already been exchanged and liquidated, you or your ex-spouse may be required to repay these assets to a joint fund for distribution under a new settlement freely entered into by both of you.

However, if it's clear that one party gave up significant assets to which he or she was entitled due to the other party's threats of violence or slander, the judge may allow the aggrieved spouse to keep his or her existing marital assets and even order interim payments to be made from the joint fund until a final settlement is reached. 

What should you do if you feel your settlement should be nullified? 

For those whose ex-spouses made threats during the settlement negotiation process in exchange for a lower child support payment or more joint assets, nullification can usually provide a number of benefits. By starting the negotiation process over -- but with evidence of your ex-spouse's prior threats on file -- you will have the opposing attorney and judge on alert for any potentially suspicious behavior and should be fairly well-protected from further threats. However, you'll need an experienced divorce attorney to help ensure you receive everything to which you are entitled. 

Your attorney will first file a motion with the court to reopen the case, including the evidence supporting your claim that you were coerced into settling. Your ex-spouse will then be permitted to submit a response, and there may even be a brief hearing in which you both present your evidence.

If the evidence supporting coercion is sufficient, the judge will reopen the case and nullify your prior settlement. The nullification order may also make provisions for assets to be repaid into the joint fund over a specified period of time. You and your ex-spouse will then begin the negotiation process from the beginning, free from coercion and in accordance with the statutes and case law in your state that establish what makes a fair marital settlement at every asset level.

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