Knapp vs Ginsberg: Pre-Marital Agreements Must be Signed in California

In 2004, television producer, co-founder of MTM Enterprises, and CEO of NBC (1981-1986) Grant Tinker married his third wife aviator Brooke Knapp (aka Nancy Brooke Knapp).  The marriage lasted until Tinker’s death in 2016.  He died of natural causes and dementia.

Prior to the marriage, Knapp and Tinker signed a pre-marital agreement (PMA).  Knapp was represented by attorney Larry Ginsberg and Tinker was represented by his non-attorney business manager Sidney Tessler. California recognizes that PMAs are legal, but only if procedural formats are followed.  An important part of the procedure, is that parties ensure that they were represented by legal counsel or waived the right to do so.  They must do so in written document form.  Tinker did not sign any waiver, and Ginsberg did not ask him to do so.

During their marriage, Tinker signed two amendments to the original PMA.

When Tinker died, Knapp tried to enforce the PMA to retain her interests in the marriage.  Tinker’s adult children from his first marriage were able to prove that the PMA was not valid and unenforceable because Tinker did not sign the waiver.  The children also argued that the Knapp obtained Tinker’s signature on the PMA amendments through elder abuse.  (Knapp was 14 years younger than Tinker, and he was 90 years old at his death.

Knapp had to settle with the Tinker children for less than she would have received if the PMA and its amendments were valid.  Knapp sued Ginsberg for legal malpractice arguing that he was negligent because of his failure to ensure that Tinker signed the waiver.

At trial, the court found in favor of Ginsberg’s stating that Tinker ratified the PMA by signing the two amendments.  Knapp appealed.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court noting that there was a triable issue whether the PMA complied with California Family Code section 1615.  Section 1615 states: “A premarital agreement is not enforceable if the party against whom enforcement is sought proves … (3) The party against whom enforcement is sought [in this case Tinker’s estate], if unrepresented by legal counsel, was fully informed of the terms and basic effect of the agreement as well as the rights and obligations the party was giving up by signing the agreement, and was proficient in the language in which the explanation of the party’s rights was conducted and in which the agreement was written. The explanation of the rights and obligations relinquished shall be memorialized in writing and delivered to the party prior to signing the agreement. The unrepresented party shall, on or before the signing of the premarital agreement, execute a document declaring that the party received the information required by this paragraph and indicating who provided that information.  (Emphasis added)