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MSA! MSA! MSA! What?!
The MSA, or Marital Settlement Agreement, is the culmination of a negotiation process that substitutes your ideas of a fair divorce for one imposed on you by a judge. Some research has estimated that 30% of divorce cases wind up back in court, often because it wasn't done "right" the first time. Many experts in law would agree that the best agreements are ones that never need to be looked at. That's because, if done right, the agreements WORK!
How you reach a successful MSA involves some basic steps. Find a trustworthy third party who knows how to facilitate a negotiation. Often this role falls to a mediator. But to make the process productive, you should understand how the negotiation works. Preparation, not necessarily in this order, should include: Try and identify what matters most in the BIG picture (i.e., making sure the kids are not traumatized by the divorce; both parents want to actively participate in raising the children; one may want to know the financial future is secure; both want to keep the "friendly" nature of their relationship in tact; etc.). Become fully informed of your rights and obligations (including where a court has great discretion in making orders). Carefully study the current way children are being cared for. Make general, flexible and tentative plans for care of the children in the future. Prepare by thoroughly identifying and disclosing all properties and debts. Take time to understand, in detail, your current financial situation (money coming in and money going out). Project your financial needs when the divorce is final.
During the settlement process, agreements may be made, amended and even discarded. This is a normal process leading to a workable end agreement. When done with patience, reflection, preparedness and knowledgeable facilitators, the MSA will provide the judge with an equitable and practical plan for allocation of assets, debts, custody and support orders.
Generally, debts incurred during the marriage are community obligations. This includes credit card bills, even if the credit card is in one name only. Student loans are an important exception because they are considered separate property debts. Community property possessions and community property debts are divided equally unless both spouses agree to an unequal division in writing. If spouses can't agree on the division of debts and possessions, a judge makes that decision.
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