Understanding a brief history of prenuptial agreements in Massachusetts helps to know how the "second look" came to exist in divorce law.During the 19th century, Massachusetts laws only respected prenuptial agreements after death and to a limited capacity. In Jenkins v. Holt (1827)and Freeland v. Freeland (1880), courts upheld prenuptials for divorces ending because of death while divorce prenuptials received a reputation for going against public notions of marriage stability.
Then, Wellington v. Rugg (1922) created a prenuptial policy which would last until 1979. In this case, Mary Wellington signed a prenuptial agreement waiving all rights to her husband’s estate if he died. When he did die, Mary sued to have her prenuptial agreement invalidated. The widow claimed that she was not aware of all her late husband’s assets. The court decided that the failure of Mary’s husband to list his assets at the time of the agreement was not fraud and, as a result, not a valid reason to cancel the prenuptial agreement.
Wellington v. Rugg set the tone for how courts handled prenuptial agreements until Rosenberg v. Lipnick (1979). After Charlotte Rosenberg’s husband died, she found herself in a similar situation as in Wellington v. Rugg—the widow signed a prenuptial agreement and attempted to invalidate it because her late husband did not disclose all his assets. When the Probate Court upheld the prenuptial agreement, Charlotte took her case to the Judicial Supreme Court. Here, the court agreed that the practices created by Wellington v. Rugg should be abandoned. However, to the disappointment of Charlotte, the court did not invalidate her prenuptial agreement. Instead, it ruled that all future prenuptial cases will not be held to the same standards. Even though she lost her case, Charlotte changed Massachusetts prenuptial laws forever. Though prenuptial agreements involving deaths were enforceable for nearly 100 years, they were now subject to review.
So, what about divorce prenuptials?
The Second Look
Massachusetts was one of the last states to adopt modernized policies for the enforcement of divorce prenuptial agreements. Today, a Massachusetts court will recognize a prenuptial agreement if the document meets specific requirements. During Dematteo v. Demateo, the Massachusetts Supreme Court used the “second look" ensure that the agreement was fair. During its second look, the court commented that “We follow the majority of courts and require that a judge may not relieve the parties from the provisions of a valid agreement unless, due to circumstances occurring during the course of the marriage, enforcement of the agreement would leave the contesting spouse without sufficient property, maintenance, or appropriate employment.” In other words, prenuptial agreements which a court deems as unfair to a spouse may be modified or ignored.
Specifically, the court gave the following circumstances that a prenuptial agreement could be invalidated:
- The deterioration of one spouse’s mental health.
- Instances in which inflation negates the intentions of the prenuptial agreement.
- Instances when spousal support or alimony are stripped by the prenuptial agreement.
Other Times the Court Has Used the Second Look
During Kelcourse v. Kelcourse, a couple desired a divorce, but their situation had changed since their prenuptial agreement. The divorcees were a wealthy man and his wife who was 20 years younger than him. Their agreement gave the wife all houses bought by the couple during the marriage and an unspecified amount of alimony. Though she was to receive the home the couple bought together, the man’s home (bought before the marriage) was valued at $1.7 million while the house purchased during the marriage had significantly decreased in value and needed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs.
During the court’s second look, it noted that the wife would not be in an advantageous position because of the prenuptial agreement. Not only was her house’s mortgage higher than its value, but the woman also made about $300 each week. After the divorce, the wife would not be able to support herself financially. The court determined that the prenuptial agreement was no longer fair because the situation evolved beyond what any party initially agreed to. So, the court divided the couple’s assets in addition to awarding the woman alimony.
How to Minimize How the Second Look Affects Your Prenuptial Agreement
Prenuptial agreements are a wise decision. While some view them as a sign of a lack of trust, they are a smart document for two reasonable people to create. However, because no one knows how things will change in a relationship over time, a couple needs the help of a Massachusetts prenuptial agreement attorney to ensure that their document will stand against the test of time as much as possible. With an experienced family law attorney, you and your spouse will have the opportunity to draft a prenuptial agreement which is designed to work with life changes, so no surprises occur if the document is needed in the future.
Call our experienced prenuptial agreement attorneys today at (508) 502-7002 to start drafting your agreement today!