Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Brief Fact Summary. Appellant and appellee entered into a prenuptial agreement prior to marriage that expressly disallowed alimony pendente lite. Appellant filed a claim for alimony pendente lite during the divorce, and claimed that the Supreme Court’s denial of this claim was in error because it required disclosure of statutory rights only when the provisions made for the spouse were unreasonable.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Absent fraud, duress, or misrepresentation, spouses should be bound by the terms of prenuptial agreements.
Facts. Appellant, Catherine Walsh Simeone, and appellee, Fredrick Simeone were married in 1975. At the time of the marriage appellee was a thirty-nine year old neurosurgeon with an approximate income of $90,000 a year. Appellant was a twenty-three year old unemployed nurse. On the eve of the wedding, appellee’s attorney presented appellant with a prenuptial agreement. Appellant signed the agreement without the assistance of counsel, and without any advice regarding the rights the agreement surrendered. The agreement limited appellant to support payments of $200 per week, with a maximum total payment of $25,000. The parties separated and appellee made payments satisfying the $25,000 limit. During divorce proceedings appellant filed a claim for alimony during the litigation. The Supreme Court affirmed a denial of her claim, finding that precedent permitted a prenuptial agreement if it either made a reasonable provision for the spouse or was entered into after full and fair disc
losure of the financial positions of the parties and the statutory rights being relinquished. Appellant claims the Supreme Court’s interpretation is in error by requiring disclosure of statutory rights only when the provision made for the spouse is unreasonable. Appellant also claims the payments provided where unreasonable. The prenuptial agreement stated that alimony pendente lite (pending litigation) was relinquished. Appellant claims she was inadequately informed with respect to the nature of alimony pendente lite.
Issue. Should prior precedent be followed allowing consideration of the knowledge of the contracting parties and the reasonableness of their bargain in determining whether to uphold a prenuptial agreement?
Held. Such precedent is based on paternalistic assumptions that spouses are of unequal status and should not be enforced as it results in substantial deviation from traditional contract law.
The law has advanced to recognize the equal status of men and women, with women being able to contract on equal terms. Based on traditional contract law, ignorance of the terms is not a valid reason to not enforce a contract. Therefore, appellants claim that the agreement should be declared void because she did not consult with independent legal counsel is without merit.
Reasonableness of the agreement is specifically the type of judicial determination prenuptial agreements are created to avoid, therefore this is not an appropriate subject for judicial review.
The duty of disclosure is consistent with traditional contract law, so full and fair disclosure of financial conditions is required. In this case, appellant failed to prove that full and fair disclosure did not occur.
Appellant’s final claim that the agreement was executed under duress due to its timing is without merit due to the contrary testimony of several other witnesses.
Dissent. Marriage is not a contract for hire, a spouse should be able to avoid a prenuptial agreement if clear and convincing proof demonstrates that the agreement is too inequitable and unfair to be enforced.
Discussion. The majority’s decision is follows traditional contract law in that it supports the parties’ freedom to enter contracts by not examining the benefits accrued to the parties under the agreement.