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Declaratory Judgments: Determining Contracts, Real Estate, Written Documents

Generally a court’s jurisdiction is limited to an ongoing case and controversy. However, in Missouri, an individual may petition the court for a declaratory judgment to determine certain rights, status, or other legal standing. In order for a Missouri Court to even entertain a declaratory judgment, it must be presented with: (1) a justiciable controversy that presents a real, substantial, presently-existing controversy admitting of specific relief, as distinguished from an advisory decree upon a purely hypothetical situation; (2) a plaintiff with a legally protectable interest at stake, “consisting of a pecuniary or personal interest directly at issue and subject to immediate or prospective consequential relief;” (3) a controversy ripe for judicial determination; and (4) an inadequate remedy at law. Missouri Soybean v. Missouri Clean Water, 102 S.W.3d 10, 25 (Mo. 2003).

A declaratory judgment should have a “conclusive effect and should lay to rest the parties’ controversy.” Jones v. Carnahan, 965 S.W.2d 209, 214 (Mo. App. 1998).  A declaratory judgment must “declare a fixed right and accomplish a useful purpose.” Moreover, the authority of the courts to render declaratory judgments must be used and operate within the limits of the constitutional powers and duties of the courts. One such limit is the traditional doctrine of ripeness; a court cannot render a declaratory judgment unless the petition presents a controversy ripe for judicial determination.

Declaratory judgments are a useful tool to the extent that they can provide clarity to often confusing situations. What are my rights and responsibilities with respect to this non-compete, non-solicitation, and confidentiality agreement? What is the legal effect of this contract? What actions will cause a breach of contract? What is the real estate boundary line? How does this statute/ordinance apply to me? Is this Will/Trust/written instrument valid? Does this franchise agreement bind me? Is this written instrument/contract even enforceable and valid?

They can, in addition, be a potentially powerful tool that can be used on the offensive. Rather than sit around and wait for an action to be filed against you, you can instead preempt that action by having the court determine your rights consistent with the restrictions set forth above.

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