While fairness is, under the case law in some states, a requirement for enforcement of a prenuptial agreement, the court of appeals established in Reed v Reed, 235 Mich App 131 (2005) that little fairness is really required in Michigan.
In Reed, the parties executed a prenuptial agreement abut 6 weeks prior to the marriage. Mr. Reed was a recent law school graduate. Mrs. Reed had no independent counsel. Their combined net worth at the time of the marriage was less than $20,000. The marriage lasted about 20 years.
At the time of
divorce, Mr. Reed claimed as his separate property millions of dollars worth
of assets he'd accumulated and held in his own name during the marriage. [Note: Mr. Reed had been careful to get Mrs. Reed to give him a quit claim deed to certain real estate after it was purchased.] According to him, the marital estate was actually quite small. Rather than build equity in separately titled property during the marriage, Mrs. Reed had used her earnings to pay the parties' joint expenses instead of acquiring separately
titled property. So much for marriage as a partnership!
Mrs. Reed sought to invalidate the prenup. She raised three grounds for invalidation, only one of which is discussed here. She claimed that because of the change in circumstances between the time the agreement was executed and the time of the divorce, it would be unfair and inequitable to enforce the agreement as interpreted by her husband..
Michigan's court of appeals reversed the trial court's decision to void the agreement on the grounds that "the facts and circumstances have changed since its execution making enforcement unfair and unreasonable." The court of appeals' decision was based upon ordinary contract law. The appellate court's reasoning was that at the time the parties entered into the agreement, it was foreseeable that the parties might accumulate substantial assets during the marriage and that they could (and did) choose "to be captains of their own ships" during the marriage.
Rinvelt v Rinvelt, earlier case law, allows a prenup to be invalidated if the
party opposing enforcement can prove that
- It was obtained through fraud, duress, mistake, or misrepresentation or nondisclosure of material fact,
- It was unconscionable when executed, or
- The facts and circumstances are so changed since the agreement was executed that its enforcement would be unfair and unreasonable.
A claim for duress is very difficult to establish. According to the court of appeals in Vanheusden v Vanheusden, Docket No. 251644, decided March 10, 2005, it is necessary to establish that a person was illegally compelled or coerced to act by fear of serious injury to her person to support a defense of duress. The agreement in Vanheusden was executed only one day prior to the wedding where 350 guests were expected. The stress of the huge wedding was not sufficient to invalidate the agreement.
A court looks at postnuptial agreements differently. Those are interpreted according to contract
principles only, and are not invalidated if they are unfair.
You'll find a comprehensive article about prenuptial agreements on my website. Also, there are a lot of good materials on prenups and postnups available if you are an ICLE Partner. Some of the contributors: Blaine Johnson, Diane Raimi, Harvery Hauer and William Lynch.
Do you need help with a divorce case? Find a Michigan Family Lawyer near you.