The Failure to Read and Understand An Agreement Does Not Invalidate It

Yesterday, I noted that there seemed to be a rash of cases challenging the validity of prenuptial agreements. Today, I continue my review with a case the sends the message that you had better read and fully understand the agreement before you sign it, particularly if you are “well educated.” Blindly entering into an agreement will not invalidate it.

In Stawski v Stawski, the Appellate Division upheld the validity of a prenuptial agreement, written in German and signed by an American citizen, in Germany. At the time of its execution, the wife-to-be did not speak German and was not represented by an attorney. Instead, the “notar,” before whom the agreement was signed, simply read and explained the agreement to the parties.

The Court found it significant that the well educated wife voluntarily signed the agreement and did not ask any questions about it prior to its execution.

The agreement provided that each party would retain ownership of their separate property held at the time of the marriage or acquired thereafter. During the length of the marriage, the Court found that:

[D]espite her asserted lack of understanding, she acted in accordance with the terms of the agreement throughout the marriage, maintaining separate bank accounts in her own name in which she deposited income from properties she inherited from her family, which properties were themselves also retained by plaintiff solely in her name.

The Appellate Division restated the public policy that:

[T]his State favors " individuals ordering and deciding their own interests through contractual arrangements'" (Van Kipnis v Van Kipnis, __ AD3d __, 2007 NY Slip Op 06074, *5 [July 12, 2007], quoting Bloomfield v Bloomfield, 97 NY2d 188, 193 [2001]), and thus, duly executed prenuptial agreements, including agreements executed in a foreign country, are accorded the same presumption of legality as any other contract.

Notwithstanding the fact that wife did not read the agreement written in German and had no legal representation at the time it was signed, the Court declined to set aside the prenuptial agreement, stating

”I]f defendant "did not read or understand the agreement, or have any explanation of the same, his conduct evidenced a degree of carelessness or negligence not to be expected of a sophisticated and mentally brilliant person" (id.). One need not be an attorney or a Fulbright scholar to know the folly of signing a legal document without an understanding of its import.

In short, a Court is not going to excuse you from an agreement you voluntarily sign if you fail to read it. The fact that agreement is written in a language you do not understand is of no import. I wonder if the result have been different if the wife was not well educated?

 

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