Prenuptial Agreement Enforced after Divorce (and Death) in Cleveland, TN: In re Estate of Lewis

Facts: Mr. and Mrs. Lewis married in April 2005 and divorced in March 2009.

Prior to the marriage, they executed a prenuptial agreement that contained the following provision:

Life insurance. Prospective Husband agrees to procure and to maintain in full force and effect a policy of term life insurance in the amount of at least $500,000 naming [Prospective Wife] as the sole beneficiary. Prospective Husband shall be solely responsible for the payment of the premium thereon. In the event that Prospective Husband shall not acquire said policy, then at the time of his death, Prospective Wife is to receive the sum of $500,000 from his estate in lieu of said insurance benefit.

At the time of divorce in 2009, the divorce court determined Mr. Lewis had removed Ms. Lewis as a beneficiary of his life insurance. The divorce court determined that, pursuant to the prenuptial agreement, Ms. Lewis would have a claim against Mr. Lewis or his estate for the life insurance benefits. The court concluded, “The requirement that [Ms. Lewis] be afforded beneficiary status shall be enforced by the court.”

At the time of Mr. Lewis’s death in 2014, he had not maintained a $500,000 life insurance policy with Ms. Lewis as the beneficiary.

Thereafter, Ms. Lewis filed a claim against Mr. Lewis’s Estate for $500,000.

The personal representative of Mr. Lewis’s estate filed an exception to Ms. Lewis’s claim asserting that (1) the prenuptial agreement did not specifically provide that the requirement regarding life insurance would survive the parties’ divorce, and (2) the divorce court’s prior ruling that the life insurance provision in the prenuptial agreement should be enforced did not contain findings that the life insurance requirement was necessary to secure an alimony obligation or property settlement owed to Ms. Lewis.

The trial court found the issue had been previously litigated in the divorce court action, resulting in a determination by the divorce court that the prenuptial agreement was enforceable. The trial court also reiterated that the divorce court had determined Ms. Lewis was entitled to a valid claim against the Estate regarding the life insurance requirement, pursuant to the prenuptial agreement. The trial court noted the divorce court’s order had become final and nonmodifiable before the probate action was filed.

Mr. Lewis’s Estate appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

The Estate argued the trial court erred in determining that the parties’ divorce decree was a final, unmodifiable order, specifically with regard to enforcement of the life insurance provision contained within the prenuptial agreement. The Estate claimed the life insurance provision was never intended to be a permanent or continuing obligation of Mr. Lewis in the event of a divorce.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-3-501 provides:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, except as provided in § 36-3-502, any antenuptial or prenuptial agreement entered into by spouses concerning property owned by either spouse before the marriage that is the subject of such agreement shall be binding upon any court having jurisdiction over such spouses and/or such agreement if such agreement is determined, in the discretion of such court, to have been entered into by such spouses freely, knowledgeably and in good faith and without exertion of duress or undue influence upon either spouse. The terms of such agreement shall be enforceable by all remedies available for enforcement of contract terms.

After considering the record, the Court agreed with the trial court’s ruling, explaining:

The divorce court based its ruling on the parties’ antenuptial agreement, determining that it would be enforced as written, including the life insurance provision that expressly provided that Ms. Lewis would have a claim against [Mr. Lewis’s] estate if the life insurance was not in force. The divorce court had the authority to find that the parties’ antenuptial agreement should be enforced. The divorce court’s determination that the antenuptial agreement should be enforced as written has now become final. No action for relief from the judgment was ever filed in the divorce court, and the determination regarding enforceability of the antenuptial agreement was not appealed to this Court.

Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

In re Estate of Lewis (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, February 18, 2016).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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