Prenuptial Agreement’s Alimony Waiver Ruled Unenforceable in Brentwood, Tennessee Divorce: Larsen v. Giannakoulias

FactsHusband and Wife met in 2006, had a child, married in 2008, had two more children, and filed for divorce in Tennessee in 2015.

internet formPrior to marrying, the parties discussed the need for a prenuptial agreement. Husband downloaded a prenuptial agreement from the Internet, and the parties signed it while living in New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, they married in Colorado.

The prenuptial agreement provided that each party “waived and relinquished any claim for alimony, spousal support, or maintenance” from the other.

Wife worked as a general surgeon, while Husband had sporadic and fleeting employment in various occupations in between lengthy periods of unemployment.

When Husband requested spousal support, he attacked the validity of the prenuptial agreement, arguing it should be construed under New Mexico law because it was signed in that state. New Mexico law prohibits waiver of spousal support. Husband argued that applying New Mexico law to the prenuptial agreement rendered the waiver-of-support clause unenforceable.

Notably, the parties’ prenuptial agreement does not contain a choice of law provision.

The trial court rejected Husband’s argument, finding “the parties clearly intended that their agreement be ambulatory. Tennessee, not New Mexico, has the most contacts with and interest in this matter.” Because Tennessee law does not prohibit the waiver of spousal support, the trial court ruled that the prenuptial agreement prohibited Husband from receiving alimony.

Husband appealed.

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

A prenuptial agreement is a contract, and interpreting a contract is a matter of law.

When resolving disputes about contract interpretation, Tennessee courts must ascertain the intention of the parties based on the usual, natural, and ordinary meaning of the contractual language. All provisions of the contract should be construed in harmony with each other to promote consistency and avoid repugnancy between the provisions of the contract.

When deciding which state’s law to apply to a particular dispute, Tennessee courts undertake a choice of law analysis using the rules applicable in Tennessee. As a general rule, the first step is to decide whether a conflict actually exists between the relevant laws of the different jurisdictions.

New Mexico law provides that “a premarital agreement may not adversely affect the right of a child or spouse to support.” Unlike New Mexico, Tennessee has not enacted a statute about a party’s right to waive spousal support in a divorce. There is a conflict between Tennessee and New Mexico law on this question.

Regarding choice of law, Tennessee follows the rule of lex loci contractus. This rule provides that a contract is presumed to be governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which it was executed absent a contrary intent.

The Court of Appeals found the prenuptial agreement should be governed by New Mexico law:

The rights and obligations of contracting parties are governed by the law in effect when they entered into their contract. Accordingly, a contract cannot be “ambulatory” in the sense that term is used by the trial court. . . . Here, the parties’ prenuptial agreement is silent as to choice of law. . . . Accordingly, the doctrine of lex loci contractus dictates that New Mexico law applies to the prenuptial agreement. New Mexico law clearly prohibits parties from waiving the right to spousal support. Because the provision waiving spousal support is in conflict with New Mexico law, we conclude that the provision is not enforceable and vacate the trial court’s order concerning the denial of alimony. . . . Our holding does not, ipso facto, result in Husband receiving alimony, and we render no opinion concerning this question. Rather, in the absence of a specific waiver provision, the question of alimony must be decided by the trial court through application of the need/ability to pay paradigm.

The trial court’s ruling was reversed and the case remanded to the trial court to determine whether Husband may have alimony and, if so, the amount.

K.O.’s Comment: This case illustrates one of the many reasons why one should never use legal forms downloaded from the Internet.

Larsen v. Giannakoulias (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, October 26, 2018).

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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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