The Harrington hearing is a legal term that originated from the case of Harrington v. Harrington, in which a wife and husband engaged in an informal settlement conference, during which they worked through most of the critical issues in their divorce. The conference took place in the courthouse cafeteria in the presence of both party's attorneys. Both sides acknowledged that significant progress was made, but the wife insisted that an actual agreement had not been reached. As you may already know, contracts do not need to be in writing to be enforceable, but they do require acknowledgement by both parties. The only exception are agreements made during mediation, which must always be in writing according to the Supreme Court ruling in the Willingboro Mall case. When one party denies the existence of, or disagrees with the terms of a verbal agreement, that's when the courts have to step in.
The Harrington case established the need for a plenary hearing, often referred to as a Harrington hearing, before deciding whether a divorce settlement can be enforced without a written agreement. This may seem ridiculous to some people, who can't imagine why someone would walk away from the table without “getting it in writing”. That idea is good in theory, but working out a divorce goes much deeper than reimbursing the injured party or setting up a systematic payment plan. When sensitive, life-altering issues such as alimony, custody and child support are involved, a private discussion without pressure to sign on the dotted line may help to achieve an agreement as soon as possible.
It's also important to note that many spouses attempt to work out a settlement right up until the trial date. Most people want to avoid a trial if at all possible, so it's fairly common to see impromptu meetings being held at the last minute. Because of the hurried nature of such meetings, one or both lawyers may ask for time to draft a formal agreement after speaking with their client. If one party later reneges on the agreement, or insists that he or she did not explicitly agree, the judge will order a plenary hearing in order to decide whether a binding oral agreement was reached.
While you should push for agreements to be in writing whenever possible, there are cases where it's better to draft a formal agreement after a thorough consultation with your attorney. On the other hand, not getting it down in writing puts you at risk for further court action should your spouse renege on the agreement. Whether a verbal agreement is in your best interest depends on many factors, including your relationship with your spouse, and the complexity of the issues under negotiation. Personal feelings, however, can easily cloud your perception, which is why it's important to discuss your situation with an experienced divorce attorney. For more information on your divorce rights and legal options, please schedule a free consultation with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.