Divorce agreements and duress in a Bedford, Texas divorce with Bedford divorce lawyer Adam Kielich
Around the interwebs, I see a lot of people in the midst of divorce, or after the divorce has been granted by a Texas court, that they signed a divorce agreement, mediated settlement agreement, or divorce decree but that they signed it “under duress”, “under pressure”, or they were “forced to sign it.” These statements typically come along with a question about whether the agreement or divorce decree can be overturned or set aside by a Texas divorce court. The answer is typically no but let’s explain why. If you expect to divorce your spouse in the near future then you should talk to a Bedford, Texas divorce lawyer.
Bedford, Texas divorce lawyers
In a Texas divorce, the adversarial end of the process can conclude in a few different ways. You go to trial and a judge or jury decides your fate. You go to mediation and reach a mediated settlement agreement. Agree to allow an arbitrator to decide your fate in arbitration. You informally reach a settlement with your spouse. You give up on the divorce and either reconcile or decide to part ways but remain married. In all but the last option you will end up with a divorce decree that spells out the terms of your divorce or incorporates another document, such as your mediated settlement agreement, that spells out the terms of your divorce.
Not all of these documents require your agreement while others must be agreed to and signed by both spouses. Attempting to challenge the agreed terms after the fact is difficult and can usually only be overturned where the agreement was reached by fraud (such as your spouse hiding assets) or duress (which we will discuss here). The problem many people face is not understanding what duress is in the eyes of the law.
What is duress under Texas law?
Under Texas law, duress requires unlawful conduct or the threat of unlawful conduct of such a character as to destroy the other party’s exercise of free will and judgment. Dallas County Cmty. Coll. Dist. v. Bolton, 185 S.W.3d 868, 878-79 (Tex. 2005). Where a threat is made, the threat must be imminent and the party must have no present means of protection from the threat. The “unlawful conduct” in that description can include a wide range of conduct that would involve fraud or force. Typically this includes conduct like physical violence, imminent threats of physical violence against you or somebody close to you, damage to your property or threats of damage to your property, and so on.
The conduct must be severe enough that it prevents you from exercising free will to agree or not agree to the terms of the document put in front of you. That means vague threats about telling people you did X during the marriage, discussions about the challenges and expense of litigation, threats that the other spouse will get X in the divorce or take away the kids and similar statements will not meet the legal definition for duress.
Is it duress to sign a divorce decree based on the judge’s ruling if you do not agree with it?
No. Once the judge rules on your divorce, or some part of it, you must prepare a written order for the judge to sign. You do not *have* to sign the decree or order; but your lack of signature does not change the judge’s ruling or the enforcement of it. The judge’s signature is the only one that really matters since it is his or her order. Your unwillingness to sign off on the decree typically means you will have to go before the judge and explain why the terms of the written order or divorce decree do not match the judge’s ruling.
If the written order or decree truly does not match the ruling then that would be a good reason to oppose the particular document; but all that means is that new language needs drafting. You cannot prevent the judge from signing a written order by withholding your signature.
Is it duress to sign an agreed divorce decree or settlement agreement if I do not agree with it?
Not unless duress is actually present at the time you sign. If you do not agree then you should not sign the document unless you are agreeing to avoid further litigation. In that case, you decided to gain the benefit of avoiding trial by giving up things you do not want.
That is not duress; that is usually how a negotiation occurs. It is rare for anybody to get everything they want and not give up anything in a settlement. Sometimes people sign a divorce decree or mediated settlement agreement because they felt pressured by the mediator or their lawyer. Getting a hard sell to reach an agreement is not duress. It’s just a hard sell. You might feel pressured to sign but that isn’t duress under the law. Buyer’s remorse about an agreement you signed is not evidence of duress. It just means you have second thoughts about what you agreed to.