Prenuptial Agreements Are Not Presumed to Be Valid
Prenuptial agreements (prenups) make great movie plots. Body Heat, Private Benjamin and Cary Grant’s Indiscreet are just a few of the comedies, dramas and thrillers that feature them in their plotlines. But if Hollywood wants accuracy, it should take note of a California law and a new ruling that holds prenups are presumed to be invalid unless the courts find specific conditions are present when they are signed.
Before Peter and Debra Last (referred to here by their first names to avoid confusion) got married in 2002, they signed an agreement in which Debra waived her right to spousal support if the couple divorced. The agreement contained other monetary awards based on the length of their marriage. When the couple divorced in 2021, the trial court awarded Debra temporary spousal support.
Peter, who is an executive in a construction company, objected, arguing that their prenuptial agreement is presumed to be valid “absent a determination the agreement is unenforceable.” Under the California Family Code, Peter was wrong about the presumption, but he nevertheless filed a petition for a writ of mandate, which would compel the trial court to enforce what he claimed were his rights.
His petition was denied in a unanimous 3-0 opinion written by Justice Maurice Sanchez from Division Three of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal on August 2. The Court ruled that the State’s Family Code presumes premarital agreements have not been executed voluntarily, making them unenforceable unless a trial court finds “in writing or on the record” that the prenup meets certain requirements. In Peter’s case, Judge Sheila Recio of the Superior Court of Orange gave Debra spousal support, but she did not put her decision in writing or on the record as the law requires.
During the trial court’s hearing, Debra’s attorney argued that the original prenup was unenforceable because of the large disparity in their incomes. Judge Recio agreed at the time. But even though Peter’s petition was denied by the District Court, its ruling ultimately gives him hope. The Superior Court retains jurisdiction and can modify the support order even retroactively to allow Peter to “recoup” his support payments. In addition, the prenup can be amended.
Sanchez’s opinion explains that the grant of temporary spousal support would be reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard that determines whether the award falls “within the permissible range of options.” He explained that California Family Code Section 1615, says that prenups are not executed voluntarily unless five conditions are met. These include proof that “the party against whom enforcement is sought” was represented by an attorney, or if not represented by counsel, “was fully informed” of the terms of and effect of the agreement. Without an attorney, Debra had to be “proficient in the language” of the agreement and she had to declare she received the information required by law. None of these conditions were reviewed by Recio.
The trial court thus failed to make findings that would rebut the presumption that the prenup was invalid, Sanchez wrote. Nor did Peter ask the judge to make them. Sanchez next recounted the legislative history of the law that created the presumption of unenforceability. The original bill created the findings that must be made to defeat the presumption of involuntary execution, and the party seeking enforcement has the burden of proof. Judge Recio made none of the findings.
In addition, Sanchez wrote that “Public policy reinforces the statutory language and our conclusion the trial court had discretion to award temporary spousal support.” He pointed out that California has “an interest in ensuring that one spouse does not become a burden to the state pending a judgment of dissolution.” He said that the California legislature gave courts the authority to order spousal support so parties “could maintain the living conditions and standards ‘in as close to the status quo position as possible’ pending trial and the division of their assets and obligations.”
The opinion said that the denial of temporary support could “exacerbate the financial disparities” of the parties and “impair or impede the ability of the party challenging the premarital agreement to litigate the issue of its validity.”
Peter argued that a California Supreme Court decision in 2000, in the case of Marriage of Pendleton and Fireman, supports his claims. Sanchez did not agree because that decision failed to determine the enforceability of a particular agreement, like the one signed by Debra.
Judge Recio maintains jurisdiction, and the trial must now review the conditions that existed when Debra signed the original prenup to determine if they meet the requirements of enforceability.