Most couples who resolve the legal issues arising from their separation figure that once the ink is dry on their settlement that they can then get on with their lives relatively free of entanglements with their ex-spouse (especially when there are no children involved). In most situations this will be the case, however, it is crucial that the wording of your settlement be ‘crystal clear’ and free from ambiguity to maximize the likelihood that future problems be avoided.

Case-in-point – You are probably familiar with the movie actor Michael Douglas (son of Kirk Douglas) and you have probably seen more than one of his movies.  Well, Mr. Douglas was the star of a movie made in 1987 – “Wall Street”.  His famous line in that movie was “Greed is good”.   I wouldn’t know about that, but his role in that movie has come back to haunt him now, almost 23 years later.

In that movie Mr. Douglas played character  Gordon Gekko, and he won an Oscar for his performance.

Mr. Douglas and his former wife were divorced in 2000.  Their divorce settlement entitles Diandra Douglas to some of the money Mr. Douglas receives from “spin-offs” from the Wall Street movie.  Ms. Douglas has already received $6.3 million from Mr. Douglas’ other projects.

Now, with Mr. Douglas’ new movie, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” raking it in at the box office, Ms. Douglas has come forward demanding a “piece of the action”.  Mr. Douglas maintains the position that as there were no plans for a sequel at the time of the divorce settlement that the new movie does not constitute a “spin-off” and thus Ms. Douglas is entitled to no further money.

While this case has not yet been decided, rest assured that much court time (and legal fees) will be spent arguing for the most favourable interpretation to the respective parties’ position.  Ms. Douglas will argue that the settlement requires a liberal interpretation of the terms of the resolution while Mr. Douglas will take the position that a narrow definition should be given to the resolution.  I have not see the wording of the actual 2000 resolution, but it would have helped if the terms at issue (spin-off) had been defined right in the wording of resolution.  This may have avoided some or all of the court battles which will inevitably unfold over the coming months.

Word to the Wise – read the terms of your resolution (Separation Agreement, Marriage Contract, Minutes of Settlement) very carefully before you sign and in moments of doubt ask yourself whether the term, clause or sentence that you are examining is capable of more than one interpretation.  If it is, ask your lawyer to give you their thoughts and suggestions to clarify the questionable phrase or sentence.