A woman has convinced a state judge to throw out a prenuptial agreement that was different from what she thought she signed and left her with “absolutely nothing.”
The wife, E.N., who was a receptionist for an unidentified matrimonial law firm, was not represented by a lawyer when she signed a document drafted by her husband’s attorney without her input, said Acting Supreme Court Justice Victor Alfieri Jr. in Rockland County (See Profile).
The judge rejected the “completely one-sided” agreement on Sept. 18.
“Plaintiff thought that the purpose of the prenuptial agreement was to protect Defendant’s individual and joint bank accounts. There was never any discussion between the two of them about Plaintiff waiving her rights to maintenance, insurance benefits, his pension, or his estate should he predecease her,” the judge wrote in E.N. v. A.N., 2301-2011. “Plaintiff did not see a copy of the agreement prior to signing it, nor did Defendant’s attorney explain the contents of it to her prior to her signing it.”
A.N. met his future wife in 1994, and they were engaged two years later, although the judge said that A.N. “was not all too keen on the idea of getting married.” At one point, he researched the possibility of a domestic partnership agreement that would provide E.N. with insurance benefits through his job with the New York Police Department.
A.N. insisted on a prenuptial agreement, and E.N. consented because she is “old fashioned” and wanted to get married.
E.N. knew from the few discussions about the agreement during their courtship that she was relinquishing her claim on A.N.’s individual bank account and a bank account he held jointly with his mother.
In early 1998, A.N. contacted the law firm of Marvin Goldberg in the Bronx to prepare the document and gave the office some financial records to help draw up the agreement; a footnote in Alfieri’s decision said A.N. did not know until a deposition on the instant case that he actually had retained Bruce Goldberg, the son and an employee of Marvin Goldberg.
In June 1998, A.N. was informed the document was ready to be signed. Though A.N. “may have seen a draft,” E.N. did not see any version of the document before the couple signed it two weeks before their wedding.
That day, A.N. picked up E.N. from her job and as they traveled to Goldberg’s firm, he asked her if she was certain about signing the agreement. E.N. said she was ready to sign after A.N. repeated he would not marry her without it.
E.N. did not read the agreement at the office before signing it, nor was she advised to have an attorney first review the document.
After A.N. filed for divorce, E.N. brought a separate suit seeking to vacate the prenuptial agreement, said Martin Johnson of Johnson & Cohen in Pearl River, who represents her.
E.N. testified at a hearing that the couple spent “maybe 15 minutes” at the law firm. Meanwhile, the husband said at the hearing he did not fully understand the agreement’s terms then or now.
Goldberg said he “had no specific recollection of the signing of this prenuptial agreement and could only testify as to what his custom and practice was,” according to a footnote in the decision.
Alfieri noted that prenuptial agreements are “generally valid and enforceable” but can be voided in the event of “fraud, duress, overreaching, or unconscionability.”
He said “no one factor” can trigger rescission but “the existence of numerous factors” can do so.
“Applied here, numerous factors are present that weigh heavily in favor of setting aside the prenuptial agreement. Specifically, the evidence established that elements of overreaching, unconscionability and duress all surrounded the execution of the subject prenuptial agreement,” Alfieri said.
He pointed out that E.N. had “no input” in the agreement’s terms and she went unrepresented throughout the process.
“The result was a prenuptial agreement that left Plaintiff with absolutely nothing. There was no bargained-for benefit,” the judge wrote.
The agreement’s terms turned out to be “very different from the terms of the agreement she thought she was signing,” he added.
Alfieri rejected A.N.’s claims that his wife had “all the time in the world” to mull her signing. He also said it was “of no significance” that E.N. was working at a matrimonial law firm at the time she signed the agreement.
In and of itself, it was not enough for E.N. to note the wedding would have been canceled without the signed agreement, said Alfieri.
But, he said, “this fact, in conjunction with the other Facts set forth above, warrant the setting aside of the prenuptial agreement on the grounds of unconscionability, overreaching and duress.”
Alfieri said A.N.’s claim that he had not fully understood the agreement was significant.
He observed that A.N.’s actions “contradict” the agreement’s terms. For instance, though the wife waived her right to insurance benefits under the agreement, Alfieri noted the husband at one point looked into how he could provide insurance benefits to her.
“Clearly, Defendant wanted to provide for her,” he noted.
Alfieri also noted that, based on the hearing testimony, it was clear specific Domestic Relations Law and General Obligations Law statutes mentioned in the agreement “were never explained to either party and that neither party understood their import.”
Johnson said the basis for Alfieri’s ruling was his client’s “compelling story.” Keeping the prenuptial agreement in place, he said, would have been “very inequitable.”
A.N. was represented by McCormack & Phillips in Nyack.
Bruce Goldberg did not respond to a request for comment.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at email@example.com.