Interpreting a Stipulation in a Divorce Case

By Attorney Gregg Herman
December 5, 2012

A seemingly innocuous court of appeals case this morning, which is not recommended for publication, but may be cited for its persuasive value under Wis. Stats. 809.23(3)(b), has an important message for Wisconsin lawyers.

In Novotny v. Novotny, the parties reached a stipulation holding the wife harmless from any “further” obligations for the marital home.  The husband took the position that she still had responsibility for obligations incurred prior to the date of the stipulation.  The circuit court disagreed, referring to a comment which the wife’s lawyer at a hearing that “[a]ny previous orders finding that my client had any obligation for real estate taxes and/or foreclosure costs will be null and void.” The appellate court, in affirming the trial court’s decision that the wife had no liability, note that “Raymond’s attorney did not object to that characterization at the hearing.”

It is quite common when parties reach an agreement for the following to happen:

a.  The stipulation does not cover all possible angles of disputes which may occur in the future.
b.  One of the attorneys makes explanatory comments which may cover some of those angles.
The message is:  Be careful of what you may say and listen carefully to what the other side says — and speak up if the other sides misstates the agreement.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman, LLC in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.