Court Provides a Primer on Pre-Nuptial Agreements and Enforces a 40 Year Old Agreement

The Appellate Division in Van Kipnis v. Van Kipnis enforced a pre-nuptial agreement which the parties entered into in France in 1965.  The agreement provided that “Each spouse shall retain ownership and possession of the chattels and real property that he/she may own at this time or may come to own subsequently by any means whatsoever.”

Although there is a presumption under New York law that property acquired during the marriage is marital, the Court found that the presumption was overcome by the unambiguous terms of the parties’ agreement and their conduct in keeping their assets separate. As a consequence, the parties’ separate assets were not subject to equitable distribution.

In rendering this decision, the Court offered a primer on the relevant law  of matrimonial agreements. Among the basic concepts elaborated upon are:

  • There is a "strong public policy favoring individuals ordering and deciding their own interests through contractual arrangements" (Bloomfield v Bloomfield, 97 NY2d 188, 193 [2001] Thus, "[d]uly executed prenuptial agreements are accorded the same presumption of legality as any other contract.”
  • "Agreements are to be construed in accord with the parties' intent."
  • The best evidence of what parties to a written agreement intend is what they say in their writing."
  • A written agreement that is complete, clear and unambiguous on its face must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms.
  • Extrinsic evidence of what the parties really intended is generally inadmissible, and will be considered only if the agreement is found to be ambiguous, W.W.W. Assoc., v Giancontieri 77 NY2d 162 [1990]).
  • Extrinsic evidence may not be utilized to create an ambiguity that would otherwise not exist

The decision can be read here.

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