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Can a 20-Year-Old Prenuptial Agreement be Enforced?

Written by Diana N. Fredericks, Esq.

Prenuptial agreements (prenups) can be valid and enforceable in the State of New Jersey.  In the recent case of Steffens[i], the Appellate Division held that a 20-year-old prenup signed in 1994, the day before the parties’ marriage ceremony took place, was valid and enforceable.

In that case, the soon-to-be husband asked his fiancée to sign a prenuptial agreement, as he had already been through two divorces and made it clear he would not marry without such an agreement.  Notably, both parties had independent counsel review the agreement and both signed it, even though the fiancée’s attorney advised her against it.

The agreement provided for alimony to the wife, depending on the length of the marriage as follows:

  • Years 1 to 5: $10,000/year (for $50,000)
  • Years 6 to 10: $15,000/year (for $75,000)
  • Years 11 to 15: $20,000/year (for $100,000)
  • Years 16 to 26: $25,000/year (for $275,000)

Thus, if the marriage lasted twenty-six years, the wife would receive a total of $500,000 in alimony payments. 

At the time of the divorce, some twenty years later, the wife asserted claims of fraud, duress, unconscionability, and insufficient time as reasons to void the prenup.  The trial court conducted a plenary hearing (trial) as to the wife’s claim of unconscionability (the other claims were dismissed by way of summary judgment).  The trial court ultimately upheld the prenup.

Prenuptial agreements are enforceable assuming full disclosure and comprehension, and absent unconscionability. Rogers v. Gordon, 404 N.J. Super. 213, 219 (App. Div. 2008).

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 37:2-38, the party seeking to invalidate a prenuptial agreement must prove by clear and convincing evidence that "[t]he party executed the agreement involuntarily[,]" or the agreement is unconscionable.

N.J.S.A. 37:2-38(c) also provides that an agreement is unconscionable if, before the execution, the party: (1) Was not provided full and fair disclosure of the earnings, property and financial obligations of the other party; (2) Did not voluntarily and expressly waive, in writing, any right to disclosure of the property or financial obligations of the other party beyond the disclosure provided; (3) Did not have, or reasonably could not have had, an adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party; or (4) Did not consult with independent legal counsel and did not voluntarily and expressly waive, in writing, the opportunity to consult with independent legal counsel.

During the hearing, the trial court concluded that enforcement of the prenup would not leave the wife without a means of reasonable support.  As such, her arguments failed, resulting in enforcement of the prenuptial agreement, not only by the trial court but also the Appellate Division. 

Prenuptial agreements can have long-lasting and significant implications.  Given the complexities involved with prenuptial agreements, it is strongly advised that you find an attorney to represent you who has experience in this area.

I have previously addressed prenuptial agreements on several occasions, and these tips and FAQ’s remain relevant and important: 

[1] https://njcourts.gov/attorneys/assets/opinions/appellate/unpublished/a0192-18.pdf

Diana Fredericks, Esq.

 

Diana Fredericks, Esq., is a partner with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC and devotes her practice solely to family law matters.  She is a Certified Matrimonial Law Attorney and was named to the NJ Super Lawyers Rising Stars list in the practice of family law by Thomson Reuters in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, and to the New Leaders of the Bar list by the New Jersey Law Journal in 2015.  Contact Ms. Fredericks for a consultation at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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