When a marriage is ending, some couples who signed a prenuptial agreement are surprised to learn that theirs may not be enforceable.
A prenuptial agreement (prenup) is a written contract that makes specific assets the exclusive property of one spouse in a marriage. In theory, a prenuptial agreement helps ensure that a person does not lose high-value assets if their marriage ends. Prenuptial agreements take effect at the beginning of a marriage and play a key role in dividing property during a divorce.
Prenuptial agreements are not just for the wealthy. They are for any couple that is interested in laying out the terms of their property (and other matters) in the event of a divorce. By agreeing on these matters ahead of time, they can avoid contested divorce proceedings and can experience greater peace of mind when marrying.
Prenuptial Agreements Are Not Always Ironclad
When individuals sign a prenuptial agreement, they probably assume that the terms of the deal are unchangeable. However, many couples do not realize their prenuptial agreements may be subject to scrutiny in a divorce. Multiple cases have given courts legal precedent to give prenups a "second look" during divorce proceedings to make sure it's fair to both parties. Though they carry significant legal strength, the provisions provided by a prenuptial agreement may be altered by a judge if deemed unfair.
Understanding a prenuptial agreement’s “second look” requires a brief review of Massachusetts state law and how it has evolved over the decades. Initially, Massachusetts only recognized prenups that provided instructions for assets after a partner died. However, the law eventually changed to honor prenuptial agreements that addressed the division of assets after a divorce. Understanding this legal history is essential when explaining the “second look” for prenuptial agreement enforcement and divorce in the commonwealth.
A Brief History of Massachusetts Prenups
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), for example, courts upheld prenuptial agreements for marriages ending because of death. Prenuptials themselves also received a reputation for going against public notions of marriage stability.
Then, Wellington v. Rugg (1922) created a prenuptial policy that 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 passed away, 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 Mary in Wellington v. Rugg—the widow had 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 Charlotte’s disappointment, 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 prenuptial enforcement after a divorce?
The Second Look & Divorce Proceedings
Massachusetts was one of the last states to adopt modernized policies for the enforcement of prenuptial agreements in divorce proceedings. Today, a Massachusetts court will recognize a prenuptial agreement if the document meets specific requirements.
During Dematteo v. Dematteo, the Massachusetts Supreme Court used the “second look" to ensure that the agreement was fair. During its second look, the court commented, “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 unfair to a spouse may be modified or ignored.
The court gave the following circumstances in which 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.
- In instances where 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 in 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 she 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 and awarded 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 or faith in marriage, they offer a means for divorcing spouses to resolve complex matters related to property and assets. Unfortunately, no one knows how things will change in a relationship over time. Because Massachusetts courts allow for a second look at prenuptial agreements, it is important to be cautious and informed when drafting and signing a prenup.
A qualified Massachusetts prenuptial agreement attorney can work to ensure that your document will stand the test of time during the court’s second look, should you divorce at any time in the future. At Miller Law Group, P.C., we are committed to helping couples throughout the commonwealth with all legal aspects of their marriage and family, including prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. We offer the invaluable opportunity to draft a prenuptial agreement that is designed to withstand whatever changes life may throw your way and anticipate the court’s second look—if it must occur.
Call our experienced prenuptial agreement attorneys at (508) 502-7002 to start drafting yours today! We can also help with divorce, custody, and contested prenup proceedings.