Prenuptial Agreement Challenged in Chattanooga, Tennessee Divorce: Law v. Law

May 9, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Soon after Husband, a successful businessperson, and Wife, a law office manager, started dating, Wife became pregnant, and they decided to marry.

Husband entered the marriage with substantial assets, while Wife did not.

Two weeks before the wedding, Husband asked Wife to sign a prenuptial agreement. Wife agreed and hired her own attorney. Husband’s attorney drafted the prenuptial agreement.

Two days before the wedding, Wife met with her attorney at his office to discuss the prenuptial agreement even though they had not received a copy of the draft at that point. Husband spent two or three hours going over the draft with his lawyer that day.

The day before the wedding, Husband and Wife went together to Husband’s attorney’s office. Wife’s attorney met them there, and Wife went into a separate conference room with her attorney.

Husband’s attorney brought the prenuptial agreement into Wife’s conference room, and Wife claimed the attorney informed her there would be no wedding if she refused to sign it. However, Husband said he never instructed his attorney to give her an ultimatum and testified he would have married her regardless.

Wife could not recall whether she asked for any changes to the prenuptial agreement.

After an hour or two, the parties signed the Agreement as nearly 30 of Wife’s relatives were traveling to their wedding. After signing the Agreement, Husband and Wife went straight to the airport to catch their flight to North Carolina, where they were married the next day.

Fast forward 25 years, Wife, then 72, filed for divorce. The validity of the prenuptial agreement was contested.

The trial court found the prenuptial agreement was valid because Wife entered into it freely, knowingly, and without duress.

Wife appealed.

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

Tennessee’s public policy favors prenuptial agreements. These agreements are enforceable when entered into freely, knowledgeably, in good faith, and without the exertion of duress or undue influence. These elements must be established by a preponderance of the evidence by the party seeking to enforce the agreement.

Good faith is established by proof that the party fully understood the agreement’s meaning and effect and the attorney and client shared the same understanding of the agreement. Full understanding of the agreement comes only after sufficient disclosure.

Although not dispositive, the participation of independent counsel representing each party is the best assurance that the legal requirements will be met and that the agreement will be enforceable.

Good faith. Wife first argued that Husband acted in bad faith by not providing a copy of the prenuptial agreement in a timely manner, resulting in Wife and her counsel seeing it for the first time the day the agreement was signed.

The Court was not persuaded:

[T]he evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s factual findings that “Wife knew the contents of the documents and had a full opportunity to examine them.” Considering the totality of the circumstances, we agree that Husband did not act in bad faith. He and Wife discussed the Agreement as early as two weeks before the wedding, and there is no indication that Wife at any point raised an objection to entering the Agreement. Moreover, Wife is an educated individual with experience in the legal industry and access to independent counsel.

While we agree with Wife that, ideally, she would have been provided a copy of the Agreement earlier than the day of its execution, Wife spent 45 minutes to two hours going over the Agreement with her attorney prior to signing. Neither party could recall Wife having any particular objections to the terms of the Agreement; further, there has been no allegation … that Husband deliberately hid a major asset from Wife…. [T]here is no evidence of insufficient disclosure, or bad faith overall, in the present case.

Duress. Prenuptial agreements must be entered into without exertion of duress or undue influence. Duress consists of unlawful restraint, intimidation, or compulsion that is so severe that it overcomes the mind or will of ordinary persons. The legal definition of duress is rather stringent. Like the other elements for a valid prenuptial agreement, duress should be considered in light of the broader circumstances.

Wife also argued that her pregnancy and the temporal proximity to the wedding (scheduled for the next day) combined to cause duress when signing the prenuptial agreement.

The Court disagreed:

Wife knew that Husband wanted a prenuptial agreement at least two weeks prior to the wedding and had no objections. Although Wife contends that Husband would have refused to marry if she had not signed the Agreement, the evidence supporting this assertion is scant, at best. Wife urges on appeal that the rushed timeline of the Agreement’s execution and proximity to the wedding amount to duress, but the record establishes that the parties agreed about marrying quickly. The circumstances of the parties’ union were mutually agreed upon and do not amount to unlawful restraint, intimidation, or compulsion. Moreover, … Wife was educated and familiar with the legal system. Wife was also represented by an attorney, whom she met with both the day before the Agreement was executed and on the day of execution. Consequently, the totality of the circumstances here does not satisfy the “rather stringent” requirements of legal duress.

Finding that Husband satisfied his burden of demonstrating the validity of the prenuptial agreement, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment that the prenuptial agreement was valid.

Law v. Law (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, April 26, 2022).

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Prenuptial Agreement Challenged in Chattanooga, Tennessee Divorce: Law v. Law was last modified: May 6th, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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