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Matrimonial law generally encourages couples who separate and divorce to resolve their disputes amicably. However, New Jersey Courts will not blindly enforce agreements, and the Courts have the authority to completely disregard agreements, as demonstrated by a recent New Jersey case involving a separation agreement.

In Sampson v. Sampson, the couple signed a separation agreement prepared by husband.  Neither party had an attorney review the agreement and the wife signed it the day she received it. Although she believed it to be unfair, she indicated that she signed it anyway because she needed to leave the house due to an “extremely hostile environment” and husband’s “identifi[cation] as mentally disabled.”  The agreement stated it was “intended to settle the matters addressed” but “not be incorporated into a final decree of divorce.” In other words, it was only addressing the terms of the separation, not the divorce.

When the parties ultimately went to trial on their divorce action, the trial court found that the separation agreement was not binding because, in the Court’s opinion, it had been “forced” upon her.  The Appellate Division agreed, noting the trial Court’s finding that the husband was not credible regarding his testimony at trial.  Furthermore, the Appellate Division noted the trial Court’s finding that the separation agreement imposed an unfair hardship on the wife.  Based on the husband’s unfair treatment of the wife and his evasive testimony and trial, the Appellate Division upheld the trial Court’s ruling that the husband had acted in bad faith and upheld an award of counsel fees to the wife.

The case of Sampson v. Sampson demonstrates that New Jersey Courts have a great amount of discretion when determining whether or not an agreement is enforceable.  While resolving disputes on your own could potentially save time and money, it is crucial to seek advice from an attorney before signing any documents.  Without the advice of an attorney, you risk losing much more than the cost of a lawyer.

If you are considering separation or divorce, contact us to learn how we can help you achieve a good result in your matter.

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