A New York appeals court is making waves throughout the family law community as a result of its recent controversial ruling. Before Elizabeth Cioffi-Petrakis and Peter Petrakis got married, they entered into a premarital agreement, commonly known as a "prenup". At trial, the court ruled that the premarital agreement was void. On appeal, the trial court's decision was upheld. Many attorneys throughout the U.S. believe that this case may have enormous implications on every premarital agreement case in the future. Divorce attorneys are surprised that the premarital agreement was held void and by the court's rationale.
The basis for voiding the premarital agreement in the divorce proceeding was "fraud in the inducement." Just four days before her wedding to Mr. Petrakis, Ms. Cioffi was presented with a prenup and an ultimatum. Although Ms. Cioffi's parents had already spent $40,000 on the wedding, Mr. Petrakis told Ms. Cioffi that he would not marry her unless she signed the agreement. Moreover, Mr. Petrakis orally promised to tear up the agreement and put her name on title to their home as soon as the couple had children. In reliance on Mr. Petrakis' oral assurances, Ms. Cioffi signed the prenup. Once the couple had children, Ms. Cioffi pushed Mr. Petrakis to follow through with their oral agreement and he refused.
At the time Ms. Cioffi signed the prenup she was represented by an attorney and all other typical enforceability requirements were undisputedly met. The written agreement also contained a provision specifically stating that both parties were precluded from relying on all prior or contemporaneous oral agreements. Notwithstanding that provision, both courts ruled that the premarital agreement void by applying the contract principal of fraud.
In Del Mar and across California, if both parties are represented by counsel from the onset of negotiations, there is no required waiting period that must pass before the parties can sign an enforceable premarital agreement. However, if only one party is represented by counsel, the unrepresented party must consider the agreement for a minimum of seven days before signing it. As long as these and the additional statutory requirements are met, many family law attorneys feel that premarital agreements are extremely difficult to set aside.
In a 1938 California case, the court determined fraud is an appropriate basis for setting aside a post-marital agreement. It would seem that New York was not too far off the mark when it applied the generally accepted contract defense of fraud to family law. More and more, divorce lawyers are seeing the stricter standards applied to civil litigation at large are being applied in family courts.