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On All Things Legal, Craig Ashton, Edward Schade, and Timothy Hodson discussed a recent case in which contracts collided with emotions–as is often the case with family law–and made national headlines and TV news. Craig did a great job of summarizing the debacle, so we’ll let him take it from the top:
“We’ve got Mimi Lee, who is a doctor from San Francisco. She married and ultimately was divorced—but while she was married to her husband, she was going through breast cancer, so they took the precaution of cryogenically preserving five embryos. And when they entered into the agreement at the fertility clinic, they said—and it’s very clear in the contract—‘At the time of divorce, if there is a divorce, the embryos must be destroyed.’
“So, the law does not recognize embryos as life, because they are the precursor to life. So ultimately, the embryos don’t have any separate legal protection as the law stands at this time. The court ultimately had to determine whether or not her right to procreate [and the near impossibility of doing so naturally at the present], because she’s now 46, she’s no longer really able to have children, [gave her legal right to the embryos].
“[In her argument], she said, ‘Look, this is my last chance to procreate. Don’t take this away from me. Plus, when I signed this contract, I thought it was more like a medical directive. In other words I can change my mind later on in the process. [For instance, if] I wanted to be taken off life support, [but later decided] I don’t anymore.’”
Craig took a moment to venture into a digression about what makes family law such a fraught facet of the legal system: emotions.
Quite often, lawsuits between former partners often devolve into mud-slinging session in which one party lists the reasons why their former spouse is a terrible human being. But the law operates in a cool, logical fashion that is in stark contrast to the white hot heat of the issues which it decides.
Craig then went on to describe show how this turned out to be the case in this particular instance: “The court said… ‘The policy best suited to ensuring that these disputes are resolved in a clear-eyed manner is to give effect to the intentions of the parties at the time of the decision at issue.’”
This means that you have to look at the text of the contract to determine what the correct course of action should be. As Craig summed it up, “So, the contract specifically said, ‘If you get divorced, the embryos are destroyed.’”
Craig went on to note that the husband had a pretty rational rationale for enforcing the contract: “[The ex-husband’s perspective is], ‘I don’t want to be attached to this woman for the rest of my life. And if she gives birth to the genetic representation of me, then I’m going to be, because I’m going to be a good father. But I shouldn’t have to be forced to do that.’”
Ed Schade quickly leapt in to point out the legal liability and moral conflict that the would-be father would face, if the embryos were used to conceive children: “It goes beyond that. He could be on the hook for child support. It’s his child, it’s his genetic material… It’s one of those things [where the ex-husband] goes, ‘Look, we’ve got frozen eggs, embryos, etc. Now we’re going to get divorced, and you’re going to drag me back into this by having these brought to maturity? And now I’ve got to pay child support? This relationship has ended and you want to bring a child into that too? You’ve got two parents who don’t even love each other anymore.’”
Timothy Hodson pointed out that there was much more than just the fate of the embryos at stake: “I’m glad the judge looked at it this way, because if she didn’t, it would have opened up Pandora’s Box.”
Following’s Tim’s line of thinking, Craig elaborated: “So [a contract is binding and valid] unless there’s coercion, duress, unconscionability [in that the contract is so unfair] that nobody would have signed it—in other words you just sold me your Enzo Ferrari for five bucks because you were drinking scotch and smoking cigars, that would be unconscionable, nobody would do that—or you’re incapacitated, in other words you’re drunk, [or] you don’t have the mental capacity because you’ve been deemed incompetent. None of those things exist in this place.
“Look, bottom line is our system does not work unless a contract is enforceable. And you can’t go back and say a do-over when you sign a contract with absolute understanding as to what you’re signing, and then get buyer’s remorse.”
It should be noted that ‘absolute understanding’ does not mean that a person can contest a contract if they misunderstood some aspect of it when they signed it. An inherent part of being an independent, competent adult with the legal authority to sign a contract is that the onus is on you to make sure that you have ‘absolute understanding’ of a contract. You can take the time to carefully read a contract, ask questions, and even seek legal assistance in order to ensure that your understanding of what the contract entails is accurate. Once you sign a contract, you’re on the hook.
In his closing, Craig explained why this seemingly merciless approach to contract enforcement is an absolute legal necessity: “Because otherwise, not one contract would be enforceable, the courts would be overwhelmed with millions and millions and millions of disputes, and a contract is the foundation of the way that we do business and interact as human beings. Without those things being enforceable, we’re pretty much toast.”