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Oral Stipulations in Equitable Distribution

In North Carolina, a stipulation, in the legal context, is an agreement between the parties in a lawsuit. It is most commonly used by parties to extend deadlines for responding to discovery or to agree on a factual finding that is uncontested. It can be done to minimize costs in litigation, because there is no need to spend time proving something that is agreed upon. Good practice dictates that stipulations are written and signed by the parties and/or attorneys and then presented to the court.

However, there are specific rules about stipulations. For instance, it is impermissible to stipulate to a question of law, as they are invalid and not binding. That is because it is the court’s job to make legal determinations based upon the facts of the case. A legal conclusion is going to culminate in a judgment or an order of the court. So you can see why stipulations regarding legal questions are not valid: in litigation, stipulations do the court’s job and put matters into the hands of the parties.

Not every stipulation is written and filed. In the midst of trial, attorneys may stipulate to certain key facts as they come forth. These stipulations are most often made orally. In the context of Equitable Distribution, there have been extensive cases regarding what makes a valid stipulation. Our courts have held that, for an oral stipulation on Equitable Distribution to be valid, the parties must be read the terms of the stipulation and questioned as to whether they understand the legal effect of the agreement. It is noted that it must be the parties. It cannot be the parties’ attorneys. “This procedure is to ensure that each party’s rights are protected and to prevent fraud and overreaching on the part of either spouse.” McIntosh v. McIntosh, 328 S.E.2d 600, 74 N.C. App. 554 (N.C. App. 1985).