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CAN A PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT BE SET ASIDE IF YOU SIGN UNDER DURESS?

Florida’s Uniform Prenuptial Agreement Act (Chapter 61.079, Florida Statutes) sets out the grounds for attacking a prenuptial agreement in the event of a divorce where one party wants the court to set aside the agreement.  These are “fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching.” But what is “duress”? Understanding that even in the best of circumstances, being presented a prenuptial agreement to sign well in advance of the wedding is stressful, but the stress may not rise to the level of “duress” sufficient to convince a court to set aside all or part of the agreement. Under the law, “duress” is defined as a condition of the mind produced by improper external pressure that “practically destroys the free agency” of a person, causing him/her to “do an act … or make a contract not of his/her own volition.”

A recent Florida appellate case [Ziegler v. Natera, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D1770, (3rd DCA 2019)] presents one of the most extreme examples of “duress” sufficient to convince a court to set aside a prenuptial agreement. In this case, the couple planned on marrying in their native Venezuela and then leave for a new life in the U.S. with their children.  The future bride was four months pregnant with their second child. The future groom promised to give his fiance full financial disclosure before the wedding. However, six days before the wedding, he handed her a prenuptial agreement. He also threatened that he would cancel the wedding if she did not sign, and failure to marry would jeopardize the parties’ plans to immigrate to the U.S. Of course, he never provided the financial documents for her review. She felt she had no choice and signed the agreement. They married, but five years later the couple split. In the divorce, the wife asked the court to set aside the prenuptial agreement on the basis of “duress.”  The appellate court reviewed the rules for dealing with “duress” in a prenuptial agreement setting. It said that “…it is black letter law that the parties to a [prenuptial] agreement do not deal at arm’s length. Rather, their relation is one of mutual trust and confidence. The parties must exercise the highest degree of good faith, candor and sincerely in all matters bearing on the terms and execution of the proposed agreement, with fairness the ultimate measure.”

With all the circumstances facing the future wife, which the court found “life-altering,” the court found that these circumstances were “sufficient to support a finding of duress.”

The lesson from this case is simple: If the circumstances surrounding the presentation of a prenuptial agreement would seem outrageous to the conscience of a reasonable person, it may support a finding of legal “duress” and the prenuptial agreement might be thrown out by a court.

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