A Prenuptial Agreement Sprung Upon Fiancé Day Before Wedding - Invalidated by Court
In the afternoon on the day before the wedding, Husband showed up at Wife’s home, unannounced, and told her that they were going for a ride. When she twice asked where they were going, he responded that she would see when they got there. Eventually, during the car ride, Husband told her that they were going to an attorney’s office to sign a prenuptial agreement. When they arrived, Wife was taken to a conference room that already had papers set on the table. After Husband’s attorney had her sit down, he “flipped through the pages and read [Husband’s] property off and then he read hers and he said, ‘here, sign.’” Husband had listed twenty-seven items of property belonging to him, including real estate, vehicles, firearms, financial accounts, furniture, and electronics, whereas Wife’s property consisted of only two items: her home and her vehicle.
Husband’s attorney did not ask Wife if she had previously spoken with an attorney or suggest that she should. Husband’s attorney appeared to be under the impression that the Wife was privy to the agreement. Wife testified that she signed the agreement after Husband signed. She stated that she was confused, caught off guard, very upset, did not say much, and was crying because she felt “betrayed” and “a little bit hijacked.” After the agreement was signed, Husband paid his attorney and drove Wife home in silence. She testified that she had been in shock at the time and felt pressured to sign the prenuptial agreement because the wedding was the next morning, everything was already one for the wedding, and she didn’t want to start some huge argument and have Husband cancel everything and throw it all away. With the pre-nuptial agreement having been signed, the wedding occurred the next day.
Years later the parties divorced, and Wife filed a motion to set aside the prenuptial agreement. The Trial Court agreed and invalidated the prenup, finding that Wife had been subjected to duress. The Trial Court focused on a couple of things: (1) Wife was not afforded any opportunity to seek the advice of counsel because she was first presented with the agreement the day before the wedding; (2) Wife was not advised to seek counsel either by Husband or Husband’s attorney; (3) agreement itself prepared by Husband’s attorney makes no mention that Wife waived counsel or that Wife was afforded the opportunity to seek counsel before signing the agreement. Husband appealed.
The Superior Court affirmed (i.e., agreed with) the Trial Court’s decision to invalidate the prenup on grounds of duress. The Superior Court noted that the Wife had the burden to prove duress by clear and convincing evidence, that this is a heavy burden and that she met it. The Superior Court found the three factors listed in the paragraph above to be critical and added that Husband’s attorney did not even ask Wife if she had spoken to an attorney. The Superior Court distinguished this case from the many cases in which courts refused to invalidate prenups because in this case Wife was not afforded the opportunity to counsel.
The Superior Court held, “Based on the trial court's credibility determinations, by which we are bound, Wife did not see the prenuptial agreement until less than twenty-four hours before her scheduled wedding. Since Wife did not know beforehand that a prenuptial agreement was even being contemplated, she did not have the opportunity to contact an attorney or negotiate the terms in any meaningful way before seeing the finalized prenuptial agreement. In short, Husband obtained Wife’s assent by way of an ultimatum ‘sufficient in severity or apprehension to overcome the mind of a person of ordinary firmness.’” Lewis, supra at 715. Orsini v. Orsini, 2023 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 477, *18.
If you have questions about prenuptial agreements, either drafting them or challenging them in court, please not hesitate to contact Scaringi Law at 717-657-7770.