What Can Make a Prenup Invalid?

person signing prenup

Court Upholds Prenuptial Agreement Signed Just Before Wedding

If your fiancé gives you a prenup to sign just before you leave for the wedding, does the short notice make the agreement invalid? Maybe. The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently considered this question in Law v. Law

Facts of The Case 

In 1992 Barbara Law and Halbert Law, Jr. were dating prior to their marriage. Halbert was a successful businessman who already owned a car dealership in downtown Chattanooga and another dealership in the Chattanooga area. In addition, he was in the process of acquiring a third dealership franchise, and was in the process of acquiring property for it.

Wife, on the other hand, was earning a modest income working in an administrative capacity for lawyers in the area and had few assets of her own.

A couple weeks before the wedding, Halbert asked Barbara to sign a prenuptial agreement. The agreement was drafted by Halbert’s attorney and while Barbara retained her own attorney to represent her, she was never given a copy of the agreement until a meeting on May 1st, 1992. That meeting, which was between 45 minutes and two hours in length, was not only the first time Barbara had actually seen the agreement, but she claimed Halbert’s attorney told her there would be no wedding if she didn’t sign.

The wedding was scheduled for the next day, May 2nd. Members of the family were already on their way to North Carolina, where the marriage was to take place. Barbara raised no objections to the prenup and signed it without making any changes or additions. Attached to the agreement was a listing of Halbert’s assets. Once the agreement was signed, the couple went straight to the airport to catch their flight to the wedding.

During the marriage, Halbert’s business dealings resulted in millions of dollars in profits to him.

The Divorce Trial 

Barbara filed her complaint for divorce in 2017, and the case came to trial in December of 2019 and January of 2020. Barbara argued that the prenup was invalid because while she knew that Halbert wanted such an agreement for a while, she was not provided a copy of the agreement until the day before the wedding. In addition, she was also pregnant, which added to her stress.

While the court didn’t go into much detail about the terms of the prenuptial agreement, the court was not persuaded by the wife’s arguments and found the agreement to be valid. The trial court then divided the couple’s assets and debts according to the prenup, and ordered the husband to pay her much less alimony than she wanted.

Analysis of The Prenuptial Agreement by the Appellate Court

Generally, Tennessee law favors enforceable prenuptial (also known as antenuptial) agreements. There is a statute that says such an agreement will be enforced by a court so long as the parties entered into the agreement “freely, knowledgeably and in good faith and without exertion of duress or undue influence upon either spouse”.

Wife’s argument is essentially that her husband lacked good faith because he waited until the day before the wedding to give her and her lawyer the detailed agreement and asked her to sign it just before they left for the airport. She argued that the close proximity to the wedding, combined with her pregnancy and other factors put her in a position where she signed the agreement under duress.

The Appellate Court, pointed out that Tennessee law has a fairly distinct definition of “duress”. Here, duress “consists of unlawful restraint, intimidation, or compulsion that is so severe that it overcomes the mind or will of ordinary persons.”

When analyzing questions like this, the court will look at the entirety of the situation surrounding the execution of such an agreement. In this case, the Court of Appeals found the following factors to be relevant:

  • Wife knew the husband wanted a prenuptial agreement about two weeks before the wedding and had no objections.
  • There was little evidence that Halbert would have refused to marry her had she declined to sign the prenup.
  • The parties had agreed to be married fairly quickly after the proposal.
  • Wife was educated and familiar with the legal system.
  • Wife was represented by an attorney and did not raise any objections to the terms of the agreement.

In light of those facts, the court decided Barbara was not put in a position where she was restrained, intimidated, or experienced any compulsion that overcame her mind or free will. The Court of Appeals agree with the trial court in that the prenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable.

What You Need to Know 

There are other reasons why a prenup could be invalid, but none of those issues were raised in this case. If you are on your way to getting married and want to know more about prenuptial agreements, or if you have a prenup and you’re considering divorce, you definitely should get some advice from an attorney. Call us at (615) 244-1018 ext. 102 to find out how we can help you.