How to Challenge an Unfair Divorce Settlement
- Understanding your divorce settlement
- Grounds for challenging a divorce settlement
- Attorney and evidence
- What to expect
- Alternate options
At the end of a divorce, you’re issued a divorce settlement that’s signed by a judge and filed with the courts.
In a perfect world, the settlement contains at least something you both want. But sometimes, there are bits and pieces you may find unfair. Changing those details is difficult but not impossible.
Close to 70,000 divorces happen in the United States annually. It’s likely that every person who participates is at least a little bit unhappy with the divorce settlement arrangements that follow. But if your agreement is truly unfair, here’s what you need to know about what happens next.
Understanding your divorce settlement
Divorce settlements come by many names, including divorce settlement agreements, marital termination agreements, and settlement stipulations. These documents are written contracts that detail your rights and responsibilities after a divorce.
Once a divorce settlement is signed and filed, both parties are legally bound by the terms.
Typical items included in a divorce settlement include the following:
- Real estate arrangements
- Retirement accounts
- Investment accounts
- Childcare custody arrangements
- Child support payments
- Spousal support payments
Before you sign any divorce settlement paperwork, you must read it. Go over every detail, and look up the terms you don’t know. Take your time, and be thorough.
It’s much easier to amend draft divorce settlement agreements. If there’s an arrangement you don’t like, you can return to the negotiation table and draft new plans without the help of lawyers.
While it’s vital to read and understand your divorce settlement, some people don’t do so. Splits are stressful, and it’s hard to think clearly when you’re under pressure. If you make a mistake, you’re not alone. But with effort and attention to detail, you can fix it.
What are the grounds for challenging a divorce settlement?
If you have grounds, you can file for a divorce settlement modification agreement. If a judge approves the new plans, both parties will get supporting court orders and paperwork.
But judges don’t like to revisit issues that have been settled fairly in court. To get their attention, you must cite a reason for a review or hearing. The following grounds may suffice:
Most people tell few or no lies on a standard day. But some are tempted to fudge the truth when they’re engaged in divorce negotiations.
Others commit outright fraud. They lie about what they own, how much it’s worth, where it is now, and when it was purchased. Dirty deals like this could make your settlement deeply unfair.
Threats and pressure
About 20% of all marriages involve physical abuse. Many more include emotional assaults. This behavior can slide into your divorce negotiations.
If your spouse bullies you into signing documents you don’t agree with or threatens you to accept the terms, you could have grounds for a revision. Pressure to sign without an adequate review time period could also be cause for concern.
Many people complete divorce negotiations independently, working with their soon-to-be ex-spouses on fair arrangements. Sometimes, mistakes creep into the process.
If you were confused about a material fact, such as the estates you own or how retirement accounts are split in divorce, that could provide you with grounds for a settlement revision.
Judges typically review divorce settlements to make sure they meet state requirements. If they spot something that benefits one party and not another, they could force both sides to return to the negotiation table.
But sometimes, issues sneak into the final documents. If you can prove that the final version is very unfair, you could ask for a revision.
Some divorce settlement agreements contain clauses that are enforced for long periods. For example, one person might be required to pay the other spousal support for years. If something dramatically alters the situation, such as the incarceration of one person or the lottery winnings of another, a revision could be in order.
The role of an attorney
Since divorce settlements are legally binding, you must head back to court to change them. Often, that involves hiring a lawyer.
More than 58,000 family law and divorce lawyers work within the United States. They typically charge by the hour, but some require a monetary retainer to stay engaged with the case. Hiring a lawyer can be an expensive step, but in some situations, it’s a smart move.
A lawyer can take the following steps:
- Review your divorce settlement. A lawyer can examine your current plans and look for opportunities to challenge them for fairness.
- Gather evidence. Your lawyer can dig up paperwork, look for witnesses, and otherwise find proof of the accuracy of your claim.
- File the paperwork. Your lawyer can take steps like starting your court case, notifying the other party, and more.
- Represent you in court. If you must argue your case in the courtroom, a lawyer can present your side of things and ask questions of the other party.
Any lawyer you hire should be reputable, honest, and easy to work with. Don’t choose someone you don’t trust.
The importance of gathering evidence
You can’t step in front of a judge, claim that there’s a problem, and get everything you want. You must prove that your claims have merit. That can mean paperwork and witness statements.
Some revision grounds are easy to prove. For example, if your spouse omitted assets from financial disclosure paperwork and your subsequent divorce settlement, you could find proof of them and argue you didn’t get your fair share.
But some revision grounds are more challenging. For example, it can be difficult to prove that your spouse threatened you or that you didn’t have time to review your documents. You may need to dig deeper to make sure your judge knows this incident happened.
What does a typical divorce settlement challenge look like?
If you think your divorce settlement is unfair, you can go to court and begin a legal challenge. Steps vary from case to case and state to state, but they typically follow the same basic pattern.
Here is what to expect:
You meet with a lawyer and outline why your divorce settlement favored your spouse and harmed you. A legal team looks into your claims and gathers evidence to prove or disprove your opinions. If there’s enough proof, the case moves forward.
Your lawyer goes to the courthouse and files paperwork to challenge your divorce settlement. Documents vary from state to state, but in some cases, lawyers move directly toward a court case. As part of filing a case, your lawyer notifies your ex about the claims.
Hearings or cases
Both parties arrive in a courtroom and argue their sides in front of a judge. In some states, this conversation is a hearing that involves just the spouses and their lawyers. In other states, this conversation is a formal court case with witnesses and a gallery of spectators.
A judge determines if the revision is legally sound. If so, orders are drafted, signed, and filed with the court. Both parties must abide by those plans as written and signed.
Alternate options for challenging your divorce settlement
Court cases are long, difficult, and expensive. Thankfully, they’re not always required. If you can avoid court and negotiation directly with your ex or use a mediator, it’s an easier path.
You could use one of the two following options to revise your settlement and come up with a fair plan:
Many couples use mediation during their divorce process. They meet with an impartial third party and develop plans that seem fair to both spouses.
This same process is available for those who disagree later. And experts say mediation is capable of settling 78% of cases.
A mediator could help you find a new settlement agreement. When you’ve found plans you both approve, you can head to the court that processed your divorce and file a motion to reopen your case and revise the plans as agreed.
Some people don’t need lawyers or mediation teams to revise their divorce settlements. Instead, they talk directly and come to new plans together.
For example, if you were both confused about how the divorce worked and aren’t happy with your plans, you could collaborate on new arrangements, document them, and file a motion to reopen your case accordingly.
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Marital Settlement Agreement. (March 2022). Cornell Law School.
New Research Shows Most People Are Honest, Except for a Few. (October 2021). University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Domestic Violence. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Family Law and Divorce Lawyers and Attorneys. (September 2023). IBIS World.
Effectiveness of Mediation: An Independent Analysis of Cases Handled by Four Major Service Providers. (1996). U.S. Department of Justice.