A settlement agreement delegates all the final details for the children such as custody arrangements (what days they are with mom/dad), financial responsibilities (who pays medical bills, health insurance, schools lunches/supplies, etc.), sets limitations for locations (child can’t be taken overseas, out of state, or to live outside of county, etc.), and a whole lot of other parenting details. In a Paternity action or Dissolution of Marriage with minor children, the parties frequently view their settlement agreement as the END of disputes and believe they are now finished dealing with their ex forever. Disappointment rushes in when parents later discover it’s not uncommon for problems to come up years later that require going back to court to seek a modification for the original parenting agreement.
The Florida Statutes and case law have established a set of criteria including a two factor test to help determine if it’s necessary to go back to court and/or retain an attorney for a modification: (1) a substantial, material, and unanticipated change of circumstances, and (2) that the modification is in the best interests of the minor children involved. Previously, strong evidence had to be shown to justify a modification, but it’s going to get even harder to obtain a modification. The Florida Bar Family Law Section held its annual conference in January of this year, and one of the topics discussed was the increasing congestion of the Judge’s dockets (schedule) partly due to an overwhelming number of pending modification actions. In an attempt to fix this docket congestion, I have seen a general policy shift where modifications granted upon the most extraordinary showings of a substantial, material, and unanticipated change of circumstances affecting the best interests of the minor children involved. In short, it is becoming more difficult to modify a settlement agreement.
What does this mean for you? If you separate from someone that you share a child or children with, it is now more important than ever to fight for an agreement that is as favorable and as forward-thinking as possible. In the past, it was often suggested to compromise on certain things that you could live with for now understanding that if it caused problems in the future, you could go back and make changes at a later time. A practical example would be: Katie and Bill (my fake couple for the purpose of this article) have a nine month old and they decide that it’s in the best interest of the child for both mom and dad to remain close by (live in the same county), so that baby learns and bonds equally with both parents at an early age. That means neither mom nor dad can relocate the child out of the area and they make it a part of the agreement. Ten years pass, baby is now older and Katie gets a dream job offer in Georgia. Since it was a part of the original agreement, Katie would have to choose between child and job, but making changes to agreement is no longer an option. From now on, it is absolutely essential that a settlement agreement to a Paternity action or Dissolution of Marriage with minor children, only agrees to terms that they can permanently live with. Think it through and seek the advice of an attorney before you sign a settlement agreement. For more information, call (352) 243-9991 and schedule a consultation today!