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THE ESSENTIALS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT.

Posted in Prenuptial Agreements

Under Pennsylvania law, traditional contract law principles have been applied in cases addressing the validity of prenuptial agreements. At the same time the case law held that for a prenuptial (i.e., premarital agreement) to be valid there had to be either a fair provision for the financially weaker spouse or a full disclosure. In 1990, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania abandoned inquiry into fair provision. The single requirement would be a full disclosure of financial resources contemporaneous with execution of the agreement. In 2004 The Pennsylvania legislature enacted 23 Pa.C.S. § 3106. It requires that a party seeking to invalidate a premarital agreement must prove that the party either did not execute the agreement voluntarily, or that prior to execution of the agreement, the party was not provided (i) a fair and reasonable disclosure of the property or financial obligations of the other party; (ii) 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; and (iii) did not have an adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3106. Basically, if the goal is to set aside or invalidate a prenuptial agreement, then that party must prove that they signed the agreement against their will or they signed it without knowing their future spouse’s full financial situation, that they did not waive their right to the disclosure of their future spouse’s financial situation, or that their future spouse left out important financial elements from the disclosure they did make.

The language of the statute emphasizes the disclosure of information between the parties, but it also refers to the “voluntariness” of the agreement. Typically, a factual analysis as to whether a prenuptial agreement was entered into voluntarily by a party involves references to the (usually, close) proximity of the wedding to the execution of the agreement, ultimatums for signing the agreement from one party to the other, or some other circumstance that the signing party could construe as placing a heightened degree of pressure on them and, thereby, making their execution of the agreement seem less than “voluntary.” Bear in mind that in an earlier case, Hamilton v. Hamilton, the future bride signed the prenuptial agreement the night before the wedding while pregnant with her future husband’s child. The Court did not agree with the Wife that the Husband’s threat to call off the wedding made her consent involuntary.

Pennsylvania relies on some well established common law principles for determining whether a contract was voluntarily entered into by a party. Causes of action based on fraud, duress, and/or misrepresentation will invalidate an agreement because they undermine the knowledge the parties had when they entered a contract. Simeone v. Simeone, 581 A.2d 162 (Pa. 1990). Coupled with § 3106, litigants are able to attack an agreement based on information contained within it, as well as the circumstances surrounding its execution. These causes of action, however, are fact-driven and due to the preponderance of the evidence standard applied to such cases, require solid evidence in order to successfully overturn the agreement.

In presenting and executing a prenuptial agreement, it is always the best practice to provide parties with sufficient time prior to the event or ceremony to allow the parties the opportunity to review the information, consult an attorney, and execute the document. None of those conditions or an established period of time, however, are required for an agreement to be validated. 

The Supreme Court has also rejected the contention that the a party must show a future spouse’s awareness of her statutory rights before waived. Stoner v. Stoner, 572 Pa. 665 (Pa. 2003). Recently, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas declined to invalidate an agreement on the basis that it that was not reviewed by an attorney. The party seeking to invalidate the agreement had had the agreement in her possession for weeks and had retained an attorney, but neglected to consult with their designated counsel. She was deemed to have knowingly executed the agreement. Savory v. Savory, C.C.P. Berks Co. January 2009. (cite)

Although not impossible, it is clearly difficult to overturn a prenuptial agreement. Nevertheless, in order to ensure that an agreement withstands the careful scrutiny of trial, it is advisable that parties begin to consider prenuptial agreements at the earliest possible time, because, simply put, the courts will not save people from making bad deals, being inattentive or otherwise showing poor judgment. To ensure that a fair deal is struck, parties should agree to consult separate attorneys as early as possible, make full and fair disclosures of their financial positions, and get what can be an extremely awkward aspect of the marriage process out of the way.

If a person cares enough about another to want to marry it can be hoped that he or she would be prepared to make a full disclosure of his/her financial position, and afford the intended spouse the time and resources to have someone independently advise them of the merits of the proposed agreement.   And if you are engaged to someone who does have a problem with making a disclosure or review of the agreement by an independent attorney the warning bells should be sounding. These agreements will bind you for so long as you are married. The value of the legal rights involved in such an agreement is incalculable.