Prenuptial Agreements and the Importance of Knowing What You’re Signing

Most people have a negative opinion when they hear someone asking for prenuptial agreements when considering marriage. If you’re in love and nothing could ever break up your marriage, why worry about a prenup? This kind of concern could arise from so many issues. Maybe you were married once (or several times) before. Maybe you have a large asset that you want to protect for your children. Or maybe you just want to plan for the worst while still hoping for the best. In any case, it’s definitely worth considering before marriage.

Most people understand the basic concepts of a prenuptial agreement. In short, it’s a contract between two parties before they get married that addresses how to divide property should their marriage fail. The biggest challenge that most people face when trying to develop a prenuptial agreement is that they can’t possibly account for every scenario.

The general rule is that prenuptial agreements are treated as contracts and should be upheld absent fraud, misrepresentations, or duress. Contracting adults are normally bound by their agreements, without regard to the actual terms of that agreement or whether they are fair to either or both parties. In many cases, the courts are not even permitted to analyze whether the prenuptial agreements were reasonable. This is why it is so important to have an attorney review any prenuptial agreement before you sign it. If you do not have an attorney review the agreement, you could be signing away significant rights without ever knowing what you’ve bargained for.

A court may still hold a prenuptial agreement to be valid even if one party does not understand the terms. When it comes to prenuptial agreements, like in all civil matters, the court will not impose a requirement to have an attorney. If the parties viewed the prenuptial agreement as reasonable at the time they signed it, the court will not allow them to avoid those terms.

In the case of Simeone v. Simeone, 581 A.2d 162 (Pa 1990), the wife, a twenty-three-year-old nurse, planned to marry her fiancé, a thirty-nine-year-old neurosurgeon. At the heart of the case, the wife signed a prenuptial agreement that was presented to her on the night before her wedding. In its terms, the agreement severely limited what the wife would be entitled to for alimony.

When reviewing the case, the court focused on two issues. First, whether the wife knew that she would be presented with a prenuptial agreement on the eve of her wedding in such a way that she was not under duress. The evidence presented by the husband indicated that the wife not only knew of a prenuptial agreement, but she had worked on developing it several months in advance. The fact that she didn’t have an attorney was her own decision to make. She had plenty of time to review the contract with counsel and weigh her decision to sign.

Secondly, the court reviewed whether a full and fair disclosure of assets had been made to such an extent that the parties presumably knew what they were contracting themselves into. In this context, the contract itself stated that a full disclosure had been made, including a list of the husband’s assets. Although the wife stated the assets were significantly undervalued, she failed to prove with clear and convincing evidence that her husband did not inform her of the true value of his assets. In short, since the contract stated that the parties agreed a full and fair disclosure was made and the wife could not prove otherwise, this was sufficient to uphold the agreement.

The point of the Simeone case is simple. Do not sign anything until you have read and understood it fully. If you are not sure, then you need to speak with an attorney who can help evaluate the risks you are taking when entering into a contract. If you know anyone who is contemplating marriage and would like to discuss their options, please contact our office to schedule an appointment.