Why Settlement Agreements Matter

For the past several weeks, news of Yellowstone star Kevin Costner’s pending divorce from his soon-to-be ex-wife, Christine Baumgartner, has been making headlines. As has been reported, Costner and Baumgartner signed a prenuptial agreement prior to that marriage, the terms of which are reportedly being contested by Baumgartner and her legal team. In fact, Costner and Baumgartner were recently in Court over Costner’s request that Baumgartner immediately vacate the parties’ family residence pursuant to the terms of the prenuptial agreement. In relevant part, the prenuptial agreement that both parties signed indicated that in the event of a divorce, Baumgartner would have 30 days to vacate the family home. Although Baumgartner and her team of lawyers were fighting to prevent that from occurring, Costner and his team were successful in obtaining a Court-order requiring Baumgartner to vacate the home no later than July 31, 2023.

The Court’s order was a major blow to Baumgartner who has claimed that Costner’s net worth is over $400 million, with $19 million having been made by Costner last year alone. However, this is not the only provision of the prenuptial agreement that seems problematic for Baumgartner, should the Court determine that the agreement is valid and enforceable. For example, despite Costner being a multi-millionaire who has amassed a large amount of wealth during the parties’ marriage, the prenuptial agreement states that Baumgartner is only entitled to a divorce settlement of $1.4 million. Although Baumgartner’s attorneys are seemingly determined to challenge the validity of the prenuptial agreement, the recent ruling by the Court ordering Baumgartner to vacate the family home signals that the Court very well may find the prenuptial agreement to be valid.

This scenario is unfortunately all too familiar. At Mello & Pickering, LLP, as attorneys who practice solely in the field of family law, we have encountered countless clients who have sought our assistance after finding themselves unhappy with agreements they have signed. We cannot stress enough the importance of understanding the legal implications and consequences of an agreement before putting pen to paper. Our dedicated divorce attorneys in San Jose work tirelessly to prevent our clients from finding themselves in an unfavorable position, which can often come from signing such agreements.

If you believe that you have signed an inequitable divorce settlement, you may be able to request a thorough reassessment of the agreement. However, it’s important to understand that overturning a divorce settlement carries a significant burden of proof. Generally, you will need to demonstrate to the judge that exceptional and compelling circumstances exist. This usually involves proving that a settlement agreement is invalid in some way or that enforcing its terms would be oppressive, inequitable, or unjust. It is always wise to establish fair agreements from the beginning rather than attempting to modify or nullify an unjust one later on. By consulting with an experienced family law attorney, you can ensure that your interests are protected from the onset and that any agreements reached are equitable to all parties involved.

How to Re-Visit or “Set Aside” your Settlement Agreement

In order to reopen a divorce case, you will need to initiate legal proceedings by filing a motion with the Court. This legal paperwork must meet statutory requirements and there are deadlines that are outlined in those statutes that must be followed. Some of the reasons you can re-open an agreement or “set it aside” include:

  • Deceit or fraud: When a party concealed crucial information or provided false details regarding a significant fact, such as the existence or true value of an asset.
  • Duress or undue influence: If one party resorted to threats or coercion to compel the other party into accepting and signing a settlement agreement.
  • Mistaken negotiations: Situations where you were misinformed or mistaken about a material fact that influenced the negotiation or agreement.
  • Fundamental inequity or unfairness: There is a clear demonstration of unjust or inequitable aspects within the divorce agreement itself.

Canceling a Settlement Agreement

With the consent of both parties and if the settlement agreement has not been formally incorporated into a Court order, it is possible to withdraw from the agreement. However, complications arise when one party does not agree to back out. Typically, Courts are hesitant to permit a party to withdraw from a signed settlement agreement if it was entered into in good faith and with active participation from both parties. Nonetheless, if the settlement agreement was fraudulently or deceitfully formed, it can be rendered void.

Modifying a Settlement Agreement

To request a modification in the settlement agreement, the appropriate motion must be filed. The party seeking modification has the burden of showing that a significant change has occurred. Presenting a reasonable basis for the change is sufficient to show for the modification request for the court. However, mere inconvenience in adhering to the terms of the agreement does not constitute a valid reason to modify the contract.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with a Settlement Agreement?

Cancelling or modifying a settlement agreement is a complex matter and may likely require the assistance of an attorney. At Mello & Pickering, LLP, our qualified family law attorneys can review a settlement agreement and determine what the options you may have under the current laws. We will also provide advice and input regarding alternative options. We will discuss your case, find out about your circumstances, and create a plan that gets you and your family the best possible outcome. For a free consultation, call (408) 288-7800 or email mpllp@sjfamilylaw.com.

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