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The Divorce Court Will Not Enforce an Agreement that is Signed as a Result of Duress

The Husband’s divorce lawyer appeals from an order granting Wife’s lawyer’s motion to set aside property and spousal support provisions of the temporary and final judgments of divorce on the grounds of duress and fraud or mistake.  Husband’s divorce lawyer also challenged an order granting Wife’s divorce lawyer’s motion to modify spousal support. 

Husband and Wife married in June 1969, when Husband was in his senior year in medical school, and Wife was a secretary.  Husband thereafter began a private practice, and until 1978 when their only child was born, Wife worked at home for Husband’s medical partnership.  They separated in January, 1982. 

After the parties separated, Wife’s divorce lawyer filed a divorce petition.  Husband became upset that wife’s divorce attorney told a third party that he saw bruises on Wife’s body, and Husband told Wife to fire him.  Wife did so and dismissed the divorce action because she was afraid of Husband.  

In April, 1982, the parties executed a marital settlement agreement, which Husband handwrote, that provided for child custody, support, and division of property.  Wife believed that she received less than half of the community property, but signed believing Husband that she had not worked for the money and was not entitled to one-half of the assets, and that if she did not sign the agreement, he would declare bankruptcy and avoid paying her anything to her or their creditors. Wife did not consult with a divorce attorney before she signed the agreement. 

Wife hired a new divorce lawyer in July 1982, who asserted Wife was afraid of the power he held over the property, her life, and her daughter: Wife’s second divorce attorney withdrew because she did not believe the parties’ agreement was fair.  Wife consulted a third divorce lawyer, but Husband had him removed from the case. 

Husband typed a new, mostly unchanged, marital settlement agreement in December 1982, and threatened that Wife would get nothing if they didn’t settle.  Wife signed without a divorce lawyer because she was emotionally exhausted. 

On March 30, 1983, Husband, self-represented, filed for divorce.  Without a divorce lawyer, Wife signed the necessary paperwork, and the divorce court incorporated Husband’s settlement agreement into the divorce judgment. 

On April 6, 1984, Wife’s divorce attorney moved to set aside the portions of the divorce judgment that divided assets and provided for her support. Under the April 1982 agreement, both spousal and child support would terminate if Wife cohabited with someone or re-married.  Wife testified that support was a compromise because Husband did not want to pay her anything.  On August 16, 1984, the divorce court set aside the judgments.  Meanwhile, Wife’s divorce attorney noticed a motion to increase support, and the divorce court granted her motion, increasing spousal and child support and awarding Wife’s lawyer fees and costs.

The divorce court set aside the judgments on the grounds of duress and extrinsic fraud or mistake.  Husband’s divorce lawyer appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the divorce court.

“Duress, which includes whatever destroys one’s free agency and constrains [her] to do what is against [her] will, may be exercised by threats, importunity or any species of mental coercion[.]”  “It is shown where a party intentionally used threats or pressure to induce action or nonaction to the other party’s detriment. . . . the coercion must induce the assent of the coerced party, who as no reasonable alternative to succumbing.”

Husband made threats and misrepresentations to Wife regarding spousal and child support and their assets. He threatened not see their child in the future. Wife received only 10% to 15% of the community property assets, and inadequate support for herself and the child without having received any consideration for the unequal division.  Wife had not received independent legal advice.  Taken together, the appellate court agreed with Wife’s divorce lawyer that Husband intentionally exercised duress to force Wife into an unequal division of the assets and the divorce court appropriately set the judgment aside.

In re Marriage of Baltins (1989) 212 Cal. App. 3d 66