Q: I read about a case recently in which a prenuptial agreement was overturned. Does this mean I should be hopeful that ours can be challenged?
A: True, there have been two notable recent decisions in New York in which courts have overturned prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. In one case, Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis, the lower court invalidated a prenuptial agreement after determining the husband had fraudulently induced his wife to sign it. The agreement in dispute was signed four days before the couple’s marriage and the court credited the wife’s testimony that she signed it only because her husband promised to tear it up after they had a child. Stripping away a lot of what the court said about the husband’s conduct, the agreement was set aside in large part because it gave the wife almost nothing after 12 years of marriage and three children—a result the court seems to have found manifestly unfair and unreasonable.
In the second case, Petracca v. Petracca, (which sounds uncannily similar to the first), the couple entered into a postnuptial agreement about three months after they were married. The wife, who was not represented by a lawyer, testified that she signed the agreement shortly after she suffered a miscarriage and because her husband threatened to terminate the marriage and not have children with her. In the agreement, the wife waived her interest in the marital residence and both parties waived their inheritance rights. And while there was financial disclosure (required for pre and post nuptial agreements), the court concluded the husband had undervalued his assets by “at least 11 million.” Finding that the agreement was “manifestly unfair” and that the husband “overreached,” the court set it aside. These decisions, however, are aberrations. The general rule is that prenuptial agreements are routinely enforced in New York.
Absent exceptional circumstances (you were forced to sign an agreement at gunpoint, or your spouse lied egregiously on his or her financial disclosure), you should assume your agreement will be upheld. If you feel you have an exceptional case, speak with a lawyer about whether it makes sense to mount a challenge. Keep the risks in mind: ie. if you lose, chances are you will be responsible for all the legal fees you incur in challenging the agreement. In general, it is a mistake to rely on verbal promises from your spouse separate from the agreement.
Another related piece of advice for people currently negotiating prenuptial, postnuptial, or any agreements: never sign an agreement you think is unfair with the hope that you can try to challenge or overturn it later.