Most people watching the movie “Marriage Story” probably missed the finer points of modern divorce laws featured. But Settlement Agreements showed up three times in very realistic ways. Each time, the Settlement Agreement the characters accepted or refused either limited or created options for the two parties and their child.
First, the couple were shown sitting in a mediator's office arguing about whether or not they should have to tell each other what they liked about each other. The characters say several times that they were there to “not have to go through the lawyers” and that they planned to write their own agreement. The agreement a mediator can help a couple write will end a divorce without having to hire lawyers or fight in court. In this scene, the couple's options are still unlimited - they can do anything they want without paying any extra money. But Scarlett Johansson's character doesn't feel like she is being heard.
The Settlement Agreement shows up again after Scarlett Johansson's character rejected the mediation and instead hired a divorce lawyer (played to scary and realistic effect by Laura Dern). The parties meet with two lawyers to write another Settlement Agreement that will close their divorce. This time, the options are limited, and the attorneys are each trying to represent the two sides. Laura Dern's lawyer makes a “take it or leave it” offer. Alan Alda, the mild-mannered attorney who thinks the parties should settle, tells the parties they should take the only offer on the table and cut their losses.
The Settlement Agreement appears again at the end of the movie, when the parties actually sign a Settlement Agreement to end their now lengthy and expensive case. The parties have spent more than $100,000 on their respective lawyers, who hurled insults at both parties in some brutal scenes that are, unfortunately, pretty true to life.
Here, even at the end, Laura Dern's attorney character pushes for even more concessions. The parties were ready to sign the same Settlement Agreement that they could have signed with Alan Alda, before they spent $100,000, but Laura Dern said she “Didn't want (the father) to be able to think he'd won.”
So three times in the movie the parties had a chance to sign a Settlement Agreement. Each time they pressed on and refused to sign, and that meant that they spent more money to allow themselves fewer options. This is pretty much what happens in most court cases.
If you are divorcing, you can sign a Settlement Agreement at the beginning, middle, or end of your court case. You'll have spent the least amount of money and have the most options if you sign at the beginning. The money spent on your divorce goes up and the options available go down as the case progresses without a Settlement Agreement.