The Appeals Court has upheld the ruling of a Norfolk probate judge who found a prenuptial agreement valid at the time of its creation but unenforceable at the time of divorce.

The parties married in 1992.  The day before their wedding, the groom asked the bride to sign a prenuptial agreement which provided, among other things, that any property acquired by the couple after marriage would not be owned jointly.  Rather, all assets, including real estate, would be owned by the parties as “tenants in common.”

After a brief discussion with her lawyer, the woman signed the document and the couple said their vows.  During the course of their marriage, which lasted from 1992 to 2021, the couple acquired houses in Canton, Massachusetts and Lake Worth, Florida.  While the wife “did not contribute any of her individual funds” to the Florida purchase, she did contribute approximately $20,000 of her premarital money to updating the Canton home.

The wife did not realize, however, that her name was not on the deed to the Florida real estate.  Instead, the property was owned solely by the husband.  Nor did the wife know that the Canton house was owned by a trust that the husband created “for the benefit of the husband’s adult children.”

The true ownership of these properties was not disclosed to the wife until shortly before she filed for divorce in 2017.

After a one-day trial, a probate court judge concluded that,

the agreement was fair and reasonable at the time of execution, but that it was unconscionable at the time of the divorce because of “material and substantial events” that “essentially stripped [the wife] of substantially all her marital interests.”

Consequently, the judge concluded that the agreement was invalid and unenforceable.

At a subsequent hearing, a different judge divided the martial estate between the parties. 

Unhappy with this outcome, the husband filed an appeal.  His attorneys argued that “the judge’s determination that the [prenuptial] agreement was unconscionable.”

The Appeals Court summarized that applicable law as follows:

For an antenuptial agreement to be enforceable, it must be both (1) fair and reasonable at the time of execution (the “first look”), and (2) conscionable at the time of enforcement (the “second look”).

The court then quoted and adopted the probate judge’s decision:

the judge found that the husband twice had breached the agreement by failing to take title to the Canton and Florida properties as a tenant in common with the wife. He further found that the husband either acquiesced to, or actually engineered, the purchase of the Canton property by the trust in order to “circumvent” the agreement, and that taking title to the Florida property in his individual name was a “naked breach” of the agreement.

Agreeing with this rationale, the Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s decision regarding the agreement as well as the judgment of divorce.

To read the full opinion, click the document below: