California Court Upholds Prenuptial Agreement in Divorce Proceeding

The division of community property in divorce can be a tedious and contentious process. The parties must identify, characterize, and place a value on all assets that may be subject to division. To avoid this task, couples often choose to prepare a prenuptial agreement in advance of the marriage, a document that sets out how any existing and future assets will be treated should the couple get divorced. Alternatively known as an “ante-nuptial agreement,” this document also allows the parties to preserve their separate interests in certain assets. It is not uncommon for one party or the other to question the validity and enforceability of a prenuptial agreement. In order to ensure that the document is prepared and executed in compliance with California law, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area.

In a recent divorce case, the wife challenged the trial court’s determination that the couple entered into a valid and enforceable prenuptial agreement. Here, the parties were married in 1995 and separated in 2001. At the time of their marriage, the wife seemed to be the spouse with more financial stability. She was a successful and talented artist, owned her own home, had a large retirement fund, and earned considerably more than her husband. His career was not as lucrative, but he got a job right before signing the prenuptial agreement that provided health insurance.

According to the husband, the couple agreed to execute a prenuptial agreement because the wife had already been divorced twice, and she did not want to “co-mingle” their assets and income. They each signed the agreement and initialed the bottom of each page, and a notary signed and acknowledged the document. In 1995, the husband began working for Microsoft and earned a significant amount of money over the next 13 years. The couple separated in 2001, and since then they have lived apart. The husband filed for divorce in 2012, and in 2013 he sought an order from the court that no community property existed due to the prenuptial agreement.

Throughout the proceedings, the wife asserted various positions but ultimately claimed that the prenuptial agreement was a “false document” and that they only signed a post-marital agreement. The attorney who allegedly drafted the document maintained that she never prepared a prenuptial agreement for the parties, but instead she did draft a post-marital document. The wife also submitted a declaration on behalf of a forensic document examiner, who stated that he could not conclusively say whether the signature on the prenuptial agreement belonged to the wife.

Despite the wife’s claims, the trial court upheld the validity of the agreement, concluding that the wife’s claims of fraud were not substantiated and that the technical requirements had been met. For example, the court found that: 1) the agreement was signed and notarized (with the notary stating under penalty of perjury that it was her signature), 2) the wife’s claim that her signature was forged was not supported by the expert testimony, 3) the existence of a possible post-marital agreement did not undermine the validity of the agreement before the court, 4) the husband’s version of the situation was logical, 5) conflicting recollections by the husband and the attorney did not render the agreement false, and 6) the wife’s claims that the agreement did not accurately disclose her main assets did not invalidate the agreement.

The wife appealed, arguing that the court abused its discretion in finding that the premarital agreement was valid and enforceable, and that she voluntarily executed it. The court of appeals concluded that substantial evidence supports the trial court’s determination that the agreement was valid, by finding (among other things) that the evidence was not inherently improbable.

While this is an unpublished decision, it is still a good example of the importance of understanding how to properly draft and execute a prenuptial agreement in order for it to hold up in court. For more than 20 years, Doppelt and Forney, APLC has been representing parties in family law matters in Southern California. The office serves clients in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family law attorney, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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