Monday, October 27, 2014

Last Week Was a Busy Week for New York Prenuptial Agreements

The day before the Appellate Division issued its opinion in McKenna v. McKenna last week, the Brooklyn Supreme Court (Presiding Justice Sunshine) issued its decision regarding a request to declare a prenuptial agreement null and void in Braha v. Braha.

In that case, the wife claims that as part of a “whirlwind engagement of less than three weeks”, her husband told her that his father was pressuring him into getting a prenuptial agreement, but the husband “lead her to believe that he would never seek to enforce it, explaining that it was being executed as a ‘show’ for his father.”  In furtherance of this alleged scheme, the wife claims that the parties tore up their copies of the agreements on their honeymoon cruise, thinking that those were the only copies.

Justice Sunshine presented the prevailing law on prenuptial agreements in New York,
"In general, New York has a strong public policy favoring individuals ordering and deciding their own interests through contractual arrangements, including prenuptial agreements'" (Matter of Fizzinoglia, 118 AD3d 994, 995, 988 NYS2d 648 [2d Dept 2014], quoting Matter of Greiff, 92 NY2d 341, 344, 680 NYS2d 894). "Where, as here, the contract is clear and unambiguous on its face, the intent of the parties must be gleaned from within the four corners of the instrument, and not from extrinsic evidence" (Rainbow v Swisher, 72 NY2d 106, 109, 680 NYS2d 894 [1988], citing Nichols v Nichols, 306 NY 490, 496 [1954]; accord Abramson v Gavares, 109 AD3d 849, 850, 971 NYS2d 538 [2d Dept 2013]; Monter v Balog, 104 AD3d 653, 653-654, 960 NYS2d 207 [2d Dept 2013]). Further:"As with all contracts, prenuptial agreements are construed in accord with the parties' intent, which is generally gleaned from what is expressed in their writing. Consequently, a written agreement that is complete, clear and unambiguous on its face must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms' (Greenfield v Philles Records, 98 NY2d 562, 569, 750 NYS2d 565 [2002]). Extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent may not be considered unless a court first finds that the agreement is ambiguous."(Van Kipnis v Van Kipnis, 11 NY3d 573, 577, 872 NYS2d 426 [2008]). "Whether an agreement is ambiguous is a question of law for the courts" (Kass v Kass, 91 NY2d 554, [*4]566, 673 NYS2d 350 [1998], citing Van Wagner Adv. v S & M Enters., 67 NY2d 186, 191, 501 NYS2d 628 [1986]; accord Boster-Burton v Burton, 92 AD3d 909, 910, 940 NYS2d 111 [2d Dept 2012]; Clark v Clark, 33 AD3d 836, 837, 827 NYS2d 159 [2d Dept 2006]).The burden of proof is on the party seeking to invalidate the agreement (see e.g. Weinstein v Weinstein, 36 AD3d 797, 798, 830 NYS2d 179 9 [2d Dept 2007], quoting Lombardi, 235 AD2d 400, 652 NYS2d 549 [2d Dept 1997]; Forsberg v Forsberg, 219 AD2d 615, 631 NYS2d 709 [2d Dept 1995]). "A party attacking the validity of the agreement has the burden of coming forward with evidence showing fraud, which will not be presumed, and must have as its basis evidence of overreaching — the concealment of facts, misrepresentation or some other form of deception" (Stawski v Stawski, 43 AD3d 776, 777, 843 NYS2d 544 [1st Dept 2007], citing Matter of Sunshine, 51 AD2d 326, 381 NYS2d 260 [1st Dept 1976], affd 40 NY2d 875, 389 NYS2d 344 [1976]). "The general rule with respect to prenuptial agreements places no special evidentiary or other burden on the party' who seeks to sustain the agreement" (Matter of Barabash, 84 AD3d 1363, 1364, 924 NYS2d 544 [2d Dept 2011], quoting Matter of Sunshine, 40 NY2d at 876]). In addressing the issue of the enforceability of the Prenuptial Agreement, it must also be recognized that as a general provision of contract interpretation, "a party who signs a document is conclusively bound by its terms absent a valid excuse for having failed to read it" (Arnav Indus. v Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner, LLP, 96 NY2d 300, 304, 727 NYS2d 688 [ 2001], citing Gillman v Chase Manhattan Bank, 73 NY2d 1, 537 NYS2d 787 [1988]; Pimpinello v Swift & Co., 253 NY 159 [1930]; Metzger v Aetna Ins. Co., 227 NY 411 [1927]).
In applying the law to the Braha case, the Court found that the language used in the agreement was clear and unambiguous and the wife was represented by an attorney of her own choosing during the negotiation of the agreement. Further, the claim that the agreement was torn up and thrown into the ocean on the parties’ honeymoon was refuted by the husband’s ability to produce an original copy of the agreement in connection with the proceedings.

The full text of the decision can be found here.

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