What if I felt pressured to sign the divorce agreement?
Feeling pressured and being pressured are not the same. A simple feeling is not enough to reopen a case or overturn a decision. You will need strong evidence and/or testimony to support your claim. If you took an oath and informed the court that you understood and agreed, you are unlikely to have recourse without substantial proof your spouse pressured you to sign by act of threat, coercion, or undue influence. All three reasons do fall under duress, which can be grounds to reopen your case and amend your divorce agreement.
Showing you have not willfully signed a divorce agreement can be difficult for you to prove in a court of law, but it is not impossible. Your first step should be reaching out to your lawyer. If you do not have a lawyer, you should consider hiring one. If you previously had a lawyer, but you feel they did not act in your best interest or were the reason for the pressure to sign, seek new council.
Generally, you will petition the court and a judge will hear arguments from both sides before deciding if there is sufficient evidence to reopen your case. Reopening your case does not guarantee the judge will change their initial ruling.
Common Reasons to Reopen Divorce Cases
Keep in mind that you can petition a court to reopen a case based on more than one reason, such as fraud and duress, as long as you can provide evidence or supporting testimony. Individual states may also impose a statute of limitations, so you should bring it to your lawyer or the court’s attention right away to start the process.
• Duress, including coercion, undue influence, or threats
• Forgery or fraud
• Failure to follow due process
Is it Remorse or Duress?
Pressure, which typically falls under duress, is the leading reason a spouse might later change their mind with a divorce agreement. It is common in child custody cases too. However, remorse is not the same as duress, and most verdicts end with the judge ruling there is not sufficient evidence to support duress or reopen a closed case. However, every case is different. The majority of those cases lack evidence because remorse is the true motivation behind the intent to appeal a decision.
Your first step is to be sure you were pressured and, if possible, provide as much evidence to support your claim. It can be difficult to separate emotions and stress during and following a divorce proceeding. Understanding how the court will view duress, as well as coercion, active or past threats, and undue influence can help you to determine if your feeling has substantial legal grounds before approaching your lawyer or the court.
What is Duress?
Gross v. Needham, 184 Cal. App. 2d 446 states, “Duress, which includes whatever destroys one’s free agency and constrains him to do what is against his will, may be exercised by threats, importunity or any species of mental coercion.” If you are suffering from duress, you will generally feel as if you had no free will or viable alternatives. Each state has its own definition of duress. Consulting your local laws or a lawyer can help determine if your pressure to sign fall under them.
Coercion and Undue Influence
While coercion often crosses definitions with duress, they are different. Duress is typically the measure of stress on your state of mind from threats and coercive behavior and its effects on your ability to make sound judgments.
Any form of threatening behavior—physical, mental, or verbal—with the intent to instill fear and force another person to do something they normally wouldn’t do or to stop a person from taking further legal action is coercion. A threat can include bodily harm, property or business damage, financial ruin, or destruction of personal relationships, among others. Coercion does not always mean having an active threat made against you, but a threat or looming threat must be present. A looming threat can include past behavior or threats that makes you fearful of retaliation should you go against their wishes.
Undue influence relates to a spouse using an unfair advantage, such as mental capacity, drug influence, or fear, to influence a decision. The intent or motive is an important factor in proving undue influence. If you are on medication that impairs your judgment and your spouse waits until you have taken it before approaching you to sign papers, your spouse has unduly influenced you.
How the Judge Decides
The judge takes your evidence, including testimony and affidavits, into consideration along with the state’s law before handing down a ruling. He or she will look at the threat or undue influence and its effect on your state of mind at the time you agreed to the divorce. Even though coercion, active threats, and undue influence can be illegal, it may not be grounds for duress according to the law. If a judge does rule in your favor and reopens your case, you can work toward amending the portions of your agreement that you did not agree with.