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AgreementsPrior Claim of Mental Illness Does Not Invalidate Pre-Nuptial Agreement

September 25, 2007

The New York Probate Litigation Blog highlights the recently decided case of Estate of Joseph Menaham, in which a widow’s attempt to nullify a pre-nuptial agreement was rejected by the Surrogates’ Court.

Prior to marriage, the wife, now a widow, was diagnosed, hospitalized and treated for a bipolar disorder. Following her release, she entered into a pre-nuptial agreement in which the parties each agreed waived their rights to election against the other’s estate. The right of election is a statutory protection which prevents one spouse from dis-inheriting the other.

Following her husband’s death, the widow sought to set aside the pre-nuptial agreement claiming that the bipolar disorder left her unable to knowingly execute the prenuptial agreement.

Surrogate Lopez-Torres noted that a “duly executed prenuptial agreement is given the same presumption of legality as any other contract, commercial or otherwise. It is presumed to be valid in the absence of fraud.” The court further referred to section 5-1.1-A(e)(2) of the Estates Powers and Trusts Law which sets forth the requirements for an effective waiver of a spouse’s right of election against the estate of a deceased spouse. Such a waiver or release must be in writing, signed, acknowledged and in “recordable” form which means that such a waiver must follow the same form as would be used to provide for the recording of a deed to real property.

The Court viewed this claim with the proper amount of cynicism and found that the widow failed to prove that she lacked the competence to enter into the agreement. As noted in the New York Probate Litigation Blog, the widow earned a professional degree during the marriage and never challenged the validity of the agreement until her husband’s death.

The real focus of the inquiry must be was the wife competent at the time she entered into the agreement. While her mental capacity before and after she signed the agreement may be of some probative value, it should not be dispositive of the issue. If a person could avoid the intended, but harsh consequence of an agreement merely by alleging that at some prior time, he suffered from metal illness, every agreement would be at risk to a subsequent challenge.

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