With the wedding season upon us, people are increasingly demanding prenuptial agreements. But many are also asking what is required to get out of the prenup they just signed. For instance, how valid would a Venezuelan prenup be if there were threats to call off the wedding unless it was signed? A Florida court just answered that question.
In the recent case, the couple planned to marry in Venezuela. But six days before their wedding, the husband presented the wife a draft of a prenuptial agreement in Venezuela. At the time, the wife was four months pregnant with their second child.
The only financial disclosures contained within the document were perfunctory references to the husband’s ownership of certain nominal non-convertible bearer shares with corresponding assigned nominal values.
Interestingly, the agreement did not provide for equitable distribution or alimony. The husband allowed the wife to peruse the document and then assured her that he would furnish full financial disclosures prior to the wedding.
But the day before the wedding, having not yet provided any financial documentation, the husband threatened to cancel the ceremony if the wife did not sign it.
The wife reluctantly signed the prenup and they got married. However, their marriage did not endure. Less than six years later, the husband filed dissolution proceedings in Miami.
The wife tried to invalidate the prenuptial agreement, contending it was the product of “duress, coercion, or overreaching,” and was unconscionable, as it had been executed in the absence of full and fair financial disclosure.
Following an evidentiary hearing, convened to determine the circumstances surrounding the execution of the agreement, the court entered an order. The following week, the parties were due to appear at the United States Embassy in Venezuela with their marriage certificate, in order to establish expatriation eligibility.
Several years later, the husband retained another attorney and sought to have the wife execute a postnuptial agreement, showing he believed the prenuptial agreement was unenforceable under Venezuelan law.
Even though the prenup was entered into by the parties in Venezuela, and Venezuelan law should govern its validity, both parties urged the application of Florida law.
The Florida trial court found the prenuptial agreement had been executed under duress and in the absence of both full financial disclosure and waiver of said disclosure. The husband appealed.
Florida Avoiding Prenups
I have written about prenuptial agreements in Florida before, especially avoiding them. Because of Florida’s policy of enforcing agreements, prenups and postnups can be difficult to void – but not impossible. Florida has both case law and a statute to help lawyers, judges and the parties determine if a prenuptial agreement, for example, is enforceable.
In Florida, to test the validity of a prenuptial agreement, courts must consider things such as fraud, duress, coercion, in addition to the unfairness of the agreement, and whether there was any financial disclosure.
Under Florida’s Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, a prenup may not be enforceable if a party can prove, in part, that it was not signed voluntarily; or was the product of fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching; or it was unconscionable.
Some of these defenses may also require a party to show they were not given a fair and reasonable disclosure of property, and did not voluntarily and expressly waive that right, and did not have adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party.
“No Agreement, No Wedding!”
In Florida, a premarital agreement is not enforceable if the party against whom enforcement is sought proves that the agreement was the product of fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching.
But what is “duress”? Often, duress is defined as a condition of mind produced by an improper external pressure or influence that practically destroys your free agency and causes you to make a contract not of your own volition.
Proving duress is difficult, and requires showing the prenup was not free choice or will and this condition of mind was caused by some improper and coercive conduct of the opposite side.
In the Venezuelan case, the testimony established that the husband initially presented his pregnant wife with the disputed prenup six days before the wedding. At that time, the wife asked for evidence regarding his net worth. The husband assured the wife such evidence would be forthcoming.
But instead of honoring his pledge, the day before the wedding, the husband demanded she sign the prenup, with the added ultimatum of “no agreement, no wedding.”
However, it is not unusual for people to give an ultimatum that they will not marry their spouse without a prenuptial agreement. Ordinarily, the “no agreement no marriage” ultimatum does not constitute duress because there is nothing improper about taking such a position.
In the recent case though, the Husband also threatened life-altering consequences, by imperiling their shared, long-term plan to begin life anew with their children in the United States. The court found that these circumstances, which were unrebutted by the husband, were sufficient to support a finding of duress.
The opinion is available here.