A California Court of Appeals has ruled that Mother is not entitled to a fee award in an unsuccessful challenge to the validity of a Marital Settlement Agreement because the Agreement provided for an award only to the prevailing party and contained an implied waiver of any claims Mother might bring arising out of the Marital Settlement Agreement. In the case of In re Marriage of Guilardi, Mother and Father separated in April of 2005, after a 16-year marriage. In May of 2005, they signed a Martial Settlement Agreement that dealt with property division, custody, and child support issues. When Trial Court issued their divorce judgment on October 12, 2005, it incorporated the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement in that judgment.
On October 11, 2006, Mother moved to set aside the Marital Settlement Agreement and the judgment, claiming fraud, mistake, duress, perjury, and failure to comply with California Family Code Section 2100 et seq. [disclosure of assets and liabilities]. Trial Court found that the Agreement was "inequitable on its face," but declined to set it aside because Mother had signed it knowingly and willingly, after choosing not to seek an independent counsel. Trial Court further found that Mother failed to show fraud, mistake, or duress, and that Mother had intentionally destroyed the parties’ prenuptial in order to prevent its enforcement. Trial Court found Mother’s separate challenge to the validity of the prenuptial was moot. Accordingly, Trial Court denied Mother’s motion.
On July 23, 2009, Mother filed a motion seeking attorney’s fee award of $157,650 for fees incurred in challenging the Marital Settlement Agreement and the divorce judgment during the time period from September 25, 2006, through March of 2009. In opposition, Father moved to dismiss, claiming among other things, that the Martial Settlement Agreement provision allowing fee award to the prevailing party precluded award to Mother. Trial Court found that the Marital Settlement Agreement contained an implied waiver of any claims other than those of prevailing party in the Agreement challenge, along with an implication that Mother understood the rights she was giving up when she signed the Agreement. Trial Court concluded that the fee award to Mother would be unjust because she had not prevailed in the Marital Settlement Agreement challenge and had willfully destroyed the parties’ prenuptial agreement. In an order filed on October 9, 2009, Trial Court granted Father’s motion to dismiss.
Claiming that the Marital Settlement Agreement provision could not trump a request for needs-based order under California Family Code Section 2030, Mother appealed. The California Court of Appeals, however, has now affirmed the Trial Court’s decision. The Appellate Court has ruled that (1) there is a split of authority as to whether the Marital Settlement Agreement provisions preclude a statutory fee award to unsuccessful party in the Marital Settlement Agreement challenge; (2) the language in the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement "broadly encompasses claims either party might bring against the other" regarding the Agreement; (3) Mother’s claim that her request for fees is not barred because it includes fees relating to child support is not supported by the record; and (4) Mother’s claim of being disadvantaged by lack of attorney representation in the Marital Settlement Agreement is impermissible belated challenge to the validity of the Marital Settlement Agreement. Therefore, the Appellate Court has determined that Trial Court was not wrong in ruling that Mother had impliedly waived her right to a fee award when she signed the Marital Settlement Agreement waiving any other claims. The Appellate Court also further declines to consider Mother’s assertion that Trial Court misapplied California Family Code Section 2032 and Section 4320 factors regarding fee awards.
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