For one particular ex-wife, there may be a certain amount of satisfaction that the Georgia Supreme Court’s written opinion in her case suggests that her ex-husband may have conducted himself in an unwise manner. While the justices didn’t call him “stupid,” they came close enough.
Beyond that footnote, there are three solid lessons to be learned in this February 1, 2016 opinion of Steele v. Steele for individuals facing the divorce process in Georgia.
The first lesson is in “Agency.”
When you hire an attorney, you are hiring him or her to act as your “agent.” What this means is what your attorney agrees to do on your behalf can be (and usually is) legally binding. So, learned Mr. Steele in this case.
Just before a jury was selected in the Steele’s divorce trial, the spouses’ attorneys struck an agreement to resolve the issues of the divorce. The agreement was written down, signed by the Wife, signed by the Husband, and signed by all of the attorneys. Mr. Steele even testified to the court that the agreement was fair and reasonable.
Despite the drafting, the signing and the swearing, Mr. Steele later refused to honor the agreement. Predictably, Ms. Steele was unhappy about that and filed a motion with the court to enforce the agreement. Also predictably, Ms. Steele won. But, Mr. Steele appealed his loss to the Georgia Supreme Court where he lost again.
Be sure that you understand how your attorney-client relationship works. If you have authorized an agreement and your attorney acts on your authorization, the agreement is probably going to stick as a legal matter..even if the “final draft” hasn’t been signed.
The second lesson is that Courts will enforce your “unwise” agreements.
As is the case in most divorces, there are a lot of issues. In the Steele case, Mr. Steele agreed to do several things that – after the fact – he attempted to avoid fulfilling. One of these things was – in essence – forcing his sons to dismiss their legal claims against Mrs. Steele in another court case.
Mr. Steele argued to the Georgia Supreme Court that this term was legally unenforceable because it was “impossible.” The court was unimpressed with this logic. While the court acknowledged that Mr. Steele agreed to make people who were not party to the agreement do certain acts, they also noted that Mr. Steele’s promise to do so may simply have been unwise. Unwise, therefore, does not equal impossible.
The court also noted the many ways that it appeared that Mr. Steele’s ability to achieve this compliance from his sons was actually a probable event….not an impossible event.
Be Sure that any contractual or settlement term to which you agree is actually something not only that you can do. If it involves the cooperation of a third-party (like your sons), it is helpful to ensure that you have their prior agreement to cooperate before the term is agreed to (by your agent/attorney) and certainly before you testify under oath to a judge that the agreement is reasonable! In divorces, common third-parties that become involved in the terms of the divorce include the mortgage company, the IRS, and Insurance and Financial Plan Administrators.
The third lesson is that playing dumb rarely works either.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, many of Mr. Steele’s arguments for being relieved of his agreements were based upon unreasonable “technicalities.” For example, he argued that the terms regarding how much of the “Rosemary Beach, Florida” property his wife received was unclear.
Why was it unclear? Because the agreement did not have the “legal description” of that property. A legal description of a property is not the “mailing address,” but a lengthy paragraph that usually is decipherable to a land surveyor who understands angles, directions, pins, degrees, feet/inches and more.
The court noted that there was only one Rosemary Beach, Florida property at issue. Thus, its dispatch of Mr. Steele’s confusion could only suggest that the confusion was contrived and motivated by his after-agreement transfer of this property to someone other than his ex-wife.
Be Sure that you don’t conduct yourself in contradiction of agreements you’ve previously made. Forget integrity…you may be facing a breach of contract problem that, in divorce cases, may also carry with it an additional consequence: contempt of court. In Georgia, being found to be in contempt of court (ignoring or failing to comply with a court order) can result in incarceration.
The Steele case is actually chock full of lessons about Georgia laws and the value of common sense. In divorce, however, many individuals find themselves overwhelmed and acting in ways that may be uncharacteristic of their intellect, character, and experience (some in the divorce industry call is “Divorce Brain.”). A case of Divorce Brain usually wears off by the time someone reaches a decision to make an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court and their true self shines through.
Make sure that your true self is one that you’d like to receive a spotlight.