Decisions of Interest

How Enforceable Are Prenuptial Agreements in New York?

July 2nd, 2013

Recent court decisions in New York State have caused uncertainty as to whether disputed prenuptial agreements are likely to be upheld. These agreements, which are contracts signed by a couple before a marriage begins, have generally been given the same strong presumption of validity as other contracts. However, decisions in two recent cases seem to run counter to tradition.

In Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis, a New York appellate court affirmed the decision of a Nassau County trial judge which invalidated a prenuptial agreement signed by both parties. The agreement in dispute was signed four days before the marriage. The wife testified that she signed the agreement only after the husband verbally promised to tear it up once the couple had children.  (The written agreement itself did not provide that it would no longer be valid once the parties had children.)  Despite the three children that followed, the husband insisted upon enforcing the terms of the prenuptial agreement when marital difficulties arose.

In this case the husband contradicted the wife’s account that he made such an oral promise, but the Court ruled that the wife’s testimony was more credible. Furthermore, the Court found that the wife had been “fraudulently induced” into signing the prenuptial agreement, rendering it invalid.

In the 2012 case Petracca v. Petracca, the enforcement of a postnuptial agreement was in dispute. Just as it sounds, a postnuptial agreement is like a prenuptial agreement, but it is signed after the wedding takes place.

The wife in this dispute claimed that she had been bullied into signing the agreement by her husband immediately following a miscarriage. She testified that, distraught from the miscarriage, she had been coerced into signing the document by her husband’s threat to end the marriage. She also claimed that she did not understand much of the document when signing it, nor did she consult an attorney.

The husband in this case vehemently denied his wife’s accusations, claiming that they had been discussing an agreement of this type since before the marriage began. He went on to deny that he had any knowledge of the miscarriage. As in Cioffi-Petrakis, the Court invalidated the agreement, believing the wife’s story over her husband’s and deciding that she had been coerced into signing the document.

Generally, a contract between two consenting adults is valid unless overwhelming evidence can be shown to prove it was entered into under fraud or duress. Courts in New York have traditionally allowed married couples, if they chose, to make their own contractual agreements as to how their finances will be resolved in the event their marriage terminates.

These decisions raise significant questions as to whether the Courts are broadening the circumstances under which they will invalidate a prenuptial agreement.   Can a spouse looking to protect his or her assets have a reasonable degree of certainty that a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement will serve that purpose?   Under what circumstances can a spouse who has been unfairly coerced into signing a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement expect that the agreement will be set aside?

By Debra L. Rubin Esq.

Rubin & Rosenblum, PLLC
445 Broad Hollow Road, Suite 210
Melville, New York 11747
Telephone: (631)462-5888
Email: drubin@rrmatlaw.com
Website: rubinandrosenblum.com

 

 

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