Prenuptial agreements are legal contracts that outline the division of assets and responsibilities between spouses in the event of a divorce. While these agreements are generally enforceable, there are specific grounds for invalidating a prenup in New York. Understanding these grounds is essential for anyone considering entering into a prenuptial agreement or facing a divorce where one is in place.
Validity of Prenuptial Agreements
The permissibility for a couple to enter into prenuptial agreements in New York is codified in Domestic Relations Law 236 (B)(3). The statute states, “An agreement by the parties, made before… the marriage, shall be valid and enforceable in a matrimonial action if such agreement is in writing, subscribed by the parties, and acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded.”
Accordingly, prenuptial agreements, or premarital agreements, are legally binding documents that will generally be enforced so long as they meet the following criteria:
- The agreement is in writing.
- The parties actually get married.
- The agreement is signed and acknowledged in a manner sufficient for a deed to be record.
- The person seeking to enforce the agreement is doing so within a divorce action.
Prenuptial agreements are capable of outlining precisely how the couple’s assets, debts, and other financial matters will be handled in the event of a divorce and, as such, must be afforded careful consideration before execution. Due to the significant consequences of signing a prenuptial agreement, parties are strongly encouraged to have an independent attorney of their own choosing represent them to negotiate and review the prenuptial agreement prior to execution; however, this is not a requirement, and individuals should not rely on their lack of representation as a means of potentially invalidating the agreement in the future.
It is clear from the foregoing that prenuptial agreements are binding upon the parties once properly executed. However, there are specific circumstances under which a prenuptial agreement can be invalidated. These range from issues related to fraud to the absence of proper legal representation. Understanding these potential pitfalls is critical when considering entering into such an agreement, defending against a challenge in the event of divorce, or even challenging the prenup yourself.
Challenging the Validity of a Prenup
If you believe your prenuptial agreement is invalid, there are legal avenues you can explore to challenge it. The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the State of New York, set the standard for overturning prenuptial agreements in its decision Christian v. Christian, 42 N.Y.2d 63 (N.Y. 1977). In that case, the Court acknowledged that an agreement may be set aside in whole or apart upon a finding of fraud, duress, mental incompetence, or fundamental unfairness.
However, the Court signaled that such grounds to overturn an agreement, if alleged, will be subject to strict scrutiny. The Court opined, “Judicial review is to be exercised circumspectly, sparingly, and with a persisting view to the encouragement of parties settling their own differences in connection with the negotiation of property settlement provisions. Furthermore, when there has been full disclosure between the parties, not only of all relevant facts but also of their contextual significance, and there has been an absence of inequitable conduct or other infirmity that might vitiate the execution of the agreement, courts should not intrude so as to redesign the bargain arrived at by the parties on the ground that judicial wisdom in retrospect would view one or more of the specific provisions as improvident or one-sided.” Christian.
Fraud is often difficult to prove but can include instances where one spouse hides assets or misrepresents their financial situation. Case law in New York has shown that the courts take allegations of fraud very seriously, and evidence of such fraud may result in substantial portions of a prenup, or even the entire agreement, being thrown out.
A common belief is that an individual may set aside a prenuptial agreement on the grounds that they did not have proper legal representation when entering into the agreement. However, lack of counsel is not specifically recognized as a grounds for invalidating an agreement, and while New York law emphasizes the importance of each party having independent counsel when entering into a prenuptial agreement, this alone would be an insufficient basis for invalidation.
Mistakes in Prenuptial Agreements: A Legal Perspective
Even minor errors in a prenuptial agreement can have significant legal consequences. Given the significant burden an individual would have to set aside a prenuptial agreement once entered into, it is critically important for the prospective husband and wife to fully understand the full impact of the agreement. The best way to do this, of course, is for each party to retain experienced legal counsel.
Protecting Your Interests with a Solid Prenuptial Agreement
A well-crafted prenuptial agreement can safeguard your financial interests and provide a clear roadmap for asset division in the event of a divorce. To ensure your prenup stands up in court, make sure to follow New York’s legal requirements to the letter.
If you’re concerned about issues like spousal support, the division of marital property, or protecting premarital assets, it’s always a good idea to consult a legal expert. They can guide you through the complexities of New York law and help you draft an agreement that accurately reflects your wishes and protects your interests.
Steps to Take if You Believe Your Prenup Is Invalid
If you have doubts about the validity of your prenuptial agreement, take immediate action.
- Consult with a legal expert to assess the grounds for invalidating your prenup in New York. They can help you understand whether your agreement is fraudulent, whether you lacked proper legal representation, or other issues that could make it invalid.
- Gather all relevant documents and evidence that support your case. This could include correspondence that proves coercion or duress, or financial records that show undisclosed assets.
- Be prepared for a legal battle. Challenging a prenup is often a complex and time-consuming process that requires strong legal representation. Make sure you’re well-prepared to present your case in court.
Speak with a Divorce Lawyer About Invalidating a Prenup in New York
Understanding the grounds for invalidating a prenup in New York is essential for anyone entering into such an agreement or considering a divorce. As we’ve discussed here, while prenuptial agreements are generally enforceable, there are specific conditions under which they can be invalidated. Whether it’s due to fraud, a lack of legal representation, or other issues, know your rights and your options.
If you have concerns about the validity of your prenuptial agreement, don’t hesitate to seek legal advice. Contact our experienced family law attorneys today for a consultation and take the first step in protecting your interests.
Michael Liptrot is senior counsel in Tully Rinckey PLLC’s White Plains office, where he focuses his practice on family and matrimonial law. For close to a decade, Michael has practiced family law across New York City, including the five boroughs, the lower Hudson Valley area, and New Jersey. Throughout his time practicing, Michael has gained a vast amount of experience in family and matrimonial law, with specific experience in divorce, custody, child support, family offense, neglect/abuse, guardianship, and SIJS (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status) matters. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (888) 229-4988.