The New York Post recently reported on the case of Elizabeth Petrakis who sought to have the Prenuptial Agreement she signed four days before her wedding in 1998 to Peter Petrakis thrown out. Mr. Petrakis, who owned a string of smoke shops when the parties initially married, turned that into a $20 million commercial real estate “empire.” He wanted to enforce the Agreement which stated that he would keep everything in his name should they split up.
Mrs. Petrakis argued for seven (7) years that Peter had coerced her signature by threatening to call off the wedding after her father had already paid $40,000 for their lavish reception. He also told her that he would rip it up as soon as they had children. After twin sons and a daughter, Mr. Petrakis still did not rip up the Agreement.
On February 20th, a Brooklyn Appellate Court panel unanimously affirmed two Nassau County court decisions, stating that Mr. Petrakis “fraudulently induced” Mrs. Petrakis to sign the Prenuptial Agreement. To quote Mrs. Petrakis’ attorney, Dennis D’Antonio, the decision “is unprecedented, vacating a Pre-Nup on the basis of a verbal promise,” even though a clause in the contract says there were no verbal promises.
Most Prenuptial Agreements, in fact, will recite that the parties are free from coercion and duress when signing the Agreement. Now, despite these recitations, the door appears to be open to try to prove that this was not true at the time and there were additional promises made. This is not a slam dunk by any means, but this case has opened the door slightly whereas it was previously firmly shut, especially in New York.
Generally, Agreements can be set aside if there was not a full disclosure made by one party to the other or if enforcement of the Prenuptial Agreement would be unconscionable. New Jersey will not enforce an Agreement if it proves to be unconscionable when it was signed or when it is being enforced (which could be twenty years later in some instances). For these reasons, the proponent of the Prenuptial Agreement needs to be careful about how it is presented to the other party and that a full disclosure is made. With so many second, or more, marriages happening these days, Prenuptial Agreements take on greater importance than ever before so it is just as important that your attorney be involved from the beginning to guide you not only regarding the terms, but also about how the Agreement is presented and executed. Posted by Elizabeth A. Calandrillo, Esq.