Whether clients have negotiated terms over many, many months, or in a single session, we frequently get pressure from one or both clients to prepare their final written agreement as fast as we can, so it can be signed before one of them changes his/her mind. Here are some tips on how to evaluate your situation, whether you feel rushed or not, but they are particularly important to think about if you feel hurried. Because once you sign that piece of paper, you’re bound to those terms by contract, and it will very soon become a final Judgment of the Court.
Understand that this is all about two words: informed consent.
So, first, are you informed enough to come to an agreement? It’s one thing not to worry about whether your spouse has $50 versus $100 in his/her wallet, when your marital estate is worth hundreds of thousands; it’s another to guess at the value of something like a retirement, when that’s the only major asset of the marriage, or agree to terms without really knowing what your spouse’s monthly income is [this is one reason why Declarations of Disclosure should be exchanged before doing substantive negotiations, let alone before coming to a final agreement]. At this point, ask yourself whether you know enough so that your smartest, most trusted advisor would say you were informed at the time you signed; if yes, move to the next step; if not, then ask for, or find out, more information so that you feel informed.
The next step is to engage in a little self-examination before signing, to see if you are agreeing voluntarily. Have you really negotiated your best agreement, or are you signing just to stop having to meet with your spouse in mediation any more? Are you signing because you feel pressured by your spouse or, even worse, are you signing because you’re in fear of what might happen if you don’t? Is signing really an act of free will on your part? Is signing really an act of free will on the part of your spouse? Do you want to sign quickly because you’re afraid that if your spouse figures out that you’re getting a really good deal, he/she will demand changes? There are many reasons to sign your agreement, but especially in the context of feeling pressured to agree quickly, you have to ask yourself why you must do that, instead of acting more methodically. Make sure that you’re signing for the right reasons for you, and that you want to sign. If you don’t, slow down, and then…
…Balance the alternatives. Having bad alternatives is not the same as having no alternatives. Sometimes, there will be many better alternatives, including going back to the negotiating table and asking for more, or looking for more creative solutions, or hiring an expert to provide a valuation of something. At such a time, you might risk words of anger or frustration by your spouse, but in the majority of situations, and in the balancing of that frustration versus getting better terms, getting better terms carries more weight (and your spouse usually gets over his/her frustration at the slow pace). Sometimes the alternatives to coming to a quick agreement are all bad, and if that’s your situation, and if you are fully informed about the alternatives, and consenting to the agreement voluntarily, then you should move forward with a clear conscience.
Last, this is why we always advise clients to review their final agreements with independent legal counsel. It allows an opportunity for a trained legal professional, in a privileged conversation, to look you in the eye, advise you about your legal rights, and ask if you had enough information for, and voluntarily consented to, your agreement.