As you learned in the CFL course, handling prenuptial agreements after a divorce requires skill and care. You want to make sure you follow proper procedures, ideally, even before a couple ever signs one (if possible), because major disputes can occur if you don’t. That’s what happened in the recent Florida appeals court case of Ziegler vs. Natera.
The case answered the question of whether the agreement the divorcing wife signed was done under an impermissible level of duress, coercion, or overreaching.
The Facts of the Matter
In 2011, the couple planned to marry in Venezuela. Six days before their wedding, Hector presented his fiancée, Raquel, with a draft of a prenuptial or antenuptial agreement. Raquel was then four months pregnant with their second child. The only financial disclosures the document contained were brief references to Hector’s ownership of non-convertible bearer shares. It didn’t provide for equitable distribution or alimony. Hector let Raquel read the document and assured her he would give her full financial disclosures before the wedding.
The day before their wedding, Hector failed to provide the financial documents and threatened to cancel the ceremony if Raquel didn’t sign the agreement. He advised her that if they didn’t get the marriage certificate on the date they scheduled, they would thwart their plan to emigrate to the United States. Raquel signed the agreement reluctantly, and the couple married.
Several years later, Hector sought to have Raquel execute a postnuptial agreement, indicating he believed the prior agreement wasn’t enforceable under Venezuelan law.
Less than six years after the marriage, Hector filed for divorce in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Raquel sought to invalidate the prenuptial agreement, contending she signed it under “duress, coercion, or overreaching.” She also argued that it was unconscionable, as she executed it without a full and fair financial disclosure, which made it “properly avoidable” under Florida law.
Though Raquel signed the prenuptial agreement in Venezuela, and it would normally fall under that country’s law, the couple asked that Florida law be applied to their case.
After a hearing to determine the circumstances surrounding the signing of the agreement, the court decided Raquel signed it under duress and in the absence of full financial disclosure and waiver of the disclosure. Hector appealed.
State of Florida Third District Court of Appeal Ruling
Citing prior legal cases, the appeals court stated that the parties to antenuptial agreements must exercise the highest degree of good faith, candor, and sincerity regarding them, “with fairness being the ultimate measure.”
The court also referred to Florida law regarding the concept that a premarital agreement isn’t enforceable under the law if the party who seeks to execute the contract proves it was the result of fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching.
The court further stated that to prove duress, “[i]t must be shown (a) that the act sought to be set aside was effected involuntarily and thus not as an exercise of free choice or will and (b) that this condition of mind was caused by some improper and coercive conduct of the opposite side.” (City of Miami v. Kory)
The appeals court found that in place of honoring his pledge to provide financial disclosures, Hector demanded execution of the agreement, “with the added ultimatum of “[n]o agreement, no wedding.”
It added that he further threatened life-altering consequences by endangering the couple’s shared, long-term plan to start a new life with their family in the U.S. The ruling concluded that this situation, which Hector didn’t dispute, was enough to support a finding of duress, together with the timing of the signing of the document. After all, Raquel had only a day to seek advice from her attorney for an independent evaluation of the contract or to cancel the wedding.
“The only rational conclusion is that her signature was the product of unwarranted compulsion, and the document should have been set aside on that basis. As the wife made ‘a convincing showing that the agreement was coerced by means of a wrongful threat such that the exercise of free will was precluded,’ we find no error and affirm.”
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3dca.flcourts.org. (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.3dca.flcourts.org/content/download/531519/5899064/file/190086_809_07102019_10054654_i.pdf [Accessed 2 Oct. 2019].