Couples who want to avoid the time, stress and expense of a litigated divorce often work together to reach a divorce agreement, but it’s not always easy. Couples can strongly disagree during the negotiation of a divorce agreement and even after the agreement is signed. However, the legal system provides options that can help couples resolve disputes that may arise concerning a divorce agreement.
Mediation, Collaborative Divorce and Arbitration
If you can’t reach a divorce settlement agreement with your spouse, you can turn to mediation. During mediation, both you and your spouse sit down with a neutral third party, called a “mediator,” who helps you iron out your differences to reach a mutually agreeable settlement. An alternative approach to mediation is a collaborative divorce in which both you and your spouse sign an agreement indicating that, with your respective lawyers, you will negotiate the terms of your divorce in good faith without litigation. You agree to resolve your conflicts by negotiation and cooperative agreement outside the courtroom. Another way to resolve disputes is to opt for arbitration. If you choose arbitration, both you and your spouse present evidence and argue your case before an arbitrator, whose decision regarding the terms of your divorce is binding.
Modifying a Divorce Agreement
You can often modify a divorce agreement if you experience a significant change in circumstance once your divorce is finalized. However, you typically can only modify those portions of the agreement that relate to spousal support and children's issues such as custody and child support payments. If the other party disputes the modification, you generally must both attend a court hearing during which you present evidence of your change in circumstance, while the other party can argue otherwise, and the judge determines if the modification is appropriate. Once you reach a settlement agreement regarding the division of property and debts, you typically cannot revisit these issues once the divorce is finalized even if there is a change of circumstance -- and as such, attempting to modify or dispute these agreed-upon terms is generally useless.
Enforcing a Divorce Agreement
If your former spouse is not following the final judgment or settlement agreement regarding property settlement terms, custody or support, you can seek enforcement through the court by following your state's procedure for filing a post-judgment motion for enforcement. The court will compel the non-complying party to abide by the terms of the final judgment or agreement. If the party doesn’t follow the terms of the agreement, the court can issue a contempt order against the non-complying party. The court can also order the non-complying party to pay your court costs.
Providing for Future Disputes
A divorce agreement can also address how the parties will work through future disputes. In your divorce agreement, you can indicate that you agree to arbitrate or mediate future concerns without resorting to court, or agree that seeking assistance from the court will serve only as a last resort. A divorce agreement can limit the likelihood of disputes by clearly addressing issues, such the right of a party to move with the children, choose the children's schools or pay for a child’s college education.