The Case of a Premarital Agreement without Lawyers Involved

H and W met in 1995 when they both attended an architectural conference in Russia.  Both are architects.  H was a Russian citizen and W lived in the United States.  They continued their relationship via written correspondence and phone calls, and always in English.

A few months later, they met again in Houston, Texas at another architectural conference.  This time, W was attending an intern program for architects in Houston.  One requirement to be accepted into the program was English proficiency.

In November of 1995, moved to California.  She became pregnant with the couple’s child in December.  Their daughter was born in September of 1996.  The couple decided to marry, but H was concerned that W was trying to “scam him” to remain in the United States.  He insisted that they sign a pre-nuptial agreement before the married, and W agreed.

H secured a paralegal to write the pre-nuptial agreement.  She had both parties sign a notice saying she was not an attorney, nor had she provided them with any legal advice, and that if they wanted legal advice, they needed to contact an attorney.  The pre-nuptial agreement stated in part: “Both parties agree that in the case of separation or divorce there will be no spousal support owed by either of the parties to the other.  Both parties are also in agreement that all children will remain in the custody of [W] upon separation or dissolution unless otherwise stipulated and agreed on by legal separation and/or dissolution of marriage.”  They both signed the four-page prenuptial agreement in October of 1996.

The couple married on November 14, 1996, and W obtained permanent residency status shortly thereafter.  Later, she became a United States citizen.  After 14 years of marriage, the parties separated in December of 2010.

While going through the dissolution process, the parties hired a private judge to settle their divorce issues.  W wanted H to provide her with spousal support, and H argued that he did not owe her support based on their pre-nuptial agreement.  W argued that she should not be held to the agreement because she did not have access to an attorney before signing it.  She also argued that she did not fully understand it because the agreement was in English.

The private judge found W voluntarily executed the agreement; that the agreement was “not unconscionable when executed (signed); and was not the result of fraud, menace, duress, or undue influence.  The judge also found that the agreement was not subject to the independent counsel and seven-day waiting period requirements of Family Code sections 1612, subdivision (c), and 1615, subdivision (c), because both sections were enacted after the parties executed the agreement and neither applies retroactively.  W appealed to the trial court, and the trial court agreed with the private judge and denied W’s request for spousal support.  W appealed to the Appellate Court

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court: “…we find substantial evidence in the record supporting [the private judge’s] factual determinations and her conclusion that both [H] and [W} voluntarily waived any right to spousal support…  We uphold the Trial Decision and its finding that the [agreement] is enforceable...”

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