The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court found that the Plaintiff-Appellant, Elizabeth Cioffi-Petrakis had been subject to duress and inequitable conduct leading up to her participation in a prenuptial agreement with her now ex-husband, Peter Petrakis. In the absence of a valid agreement, Cioffi-Petrakis may be entitled to as much as 50% of her husband’s wealth and property, including a real estate empire valued at over $20 million.
While prenuptial agreements are commonly viewed as being airtight and definitive, the court’s decision is likely to generate uncertainty for thousands of divorcees and their legal counsel. That uncertainty is only exacerbated by the vague terms that, based on the court’s ruling, rendered the agreement fraudulent. Petrakis had proposed the agreement only four days before the couple’s wedding, leaving his fiancé little time to negotiate terms. In addition, Petrakis assured his wife-to-be that upon the birth of their first child, he would shred the document.
Though the couple produced two children over the course of their 12-year marriage, Petrakis made no attempt to destroy the document.
Additional rulings in cases such as these are sure to spring up over the next several years, as divorced New Yorkers test the court’s more nuanced interpretation of what qualifies an agreement as fraudulent.
Other states will inevitably face similar decisions, as more and more former spouses seek to invalidate prenuptial agreements.
Most states already have laws on the books requiring a waiting period in between the date of the prenuptial agreement and the wedding, and remaining states may evaluate the merits of a waiting period in the wake of this ruling.
Currently, in New Jersey, a prenuptial or antenuptial agreement will only be enforced if: 1) the parties are competent; 2) there is an absence of fraud, misrepresentation, duress, and overreaching; 3) there is full and complete financial disclosure, with a written list of assets and income attached to the agreement; 4) the agreement was entered into voluntarily; 5) each party must also have, or have access to, the advice of independent counsel; and 5) the agreement is not “unconscionable,” (though it does not necessarily have to be “fair and equitable”).