A standard provision in most written agreements establishes that no modification of the agreement shall occur unless the parties do so in writing (and usually notarized to avoid fraud). Recently, however, I confronted the issue as to whether or not a party may make a valid oral modification of a provision of an agreement. In other words, was the “all modifications in writing” provision of the agreement as ironclad as it appeared?
The issue stemmed from the reimbursement of expenses related to the sale of property. Over time, the reimbursable expenses grew and became substantial enough that the party responsible for reimbursing the other balked at the figure and tried in many ways to extricate themselves from the obligation.
It is common to include modification language in agreements to ensure that ad hoc revisions by the parties do not alter or create new obligations; or to avoid the chance that oral agreements are misunderstood or reneged upon by one or both parties. Interestingly, a commercial litigation case sheds light on the weakness of these clauses. The case of Crown Coal & Coke Company v. Powhatan Mid-Vol Sales LLC, 929 F.Supp.2d 460 (W.D.Pa. 2013) addresses whether a provision prohibiting modification of an agreement unless in writing precludes any modification whatsoever. The U.S. District Court, citing a variety of state and federal cases found that even where such a prohibition exists in the agreement, the parties may revise the agreement by parol (oral) negotiation: “[the] hand that pens a writing may not gag the mouths of the assenting parties.”
Modification of an agreement by parol negotiation, however, has the significant burden of being proven by clear, precise, and convincing evidence. This is a reflection of the general rationale behind written agreements: the need to eliminate ambiguity or confusion between the parties. Here, the Crown Coal court is articulating that in order to prove the validity of revised terms of the agreement, the party seeking enforcement must show that the terms are clear, unambiguous, and the evidence convincing enough to prove to the court that both parties intended to abide by the terms. Evidence along these lines includes the actions of the parties effectuating the terms.
This case reminds us that terms of an agreement are alterable by the parties so long as they satisfy the elements of being a binding contract. However, it is always advisable to work with a lawyer to make sure the revisions are in writing since the high burden of proving a modification by parol evidence – while not impossible – is difficult.
Any term of an agreement worth adhering to is best established in writing and amended to the Agreement. In the case of a Marital Settlement Agreement, it is also advisable to take the additional step to have the amendment incorporated into the Divorce Decree. Once a MSA is entered as an Order of Court through a Divorce Decree, it really cannot be modified except by another Order of Court. Consequently, if a revision to the terms has been made and both parties expect the other to adhere to the terms (or want the ability to compel enforcement), the best practice is to have a written amendment signed and filed for incorporation with the Divorce Decree. This additional step might be the difference between easily enforcing the new term(s) or having to take a circuitous route to enforcement. MSA becomes a court order once incorporated into the decree and court orders can only be modified by the court.
Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.