New York Appellate Court Assesses Validity of Post-Nuptial Agreement in Divorce Case

NYS Notary SealContract law in the U.S. requires the parties to an agreement to follow certain formalities. This helps ensure that others, including judges and arbitrators, can understand the key elements of the agreement in the event of a dispute. Family law disputes in New York often involve principles of contract law, particularly when the parties to a divorce disagree over a pre- or post-nuptial agreement, also known as a marital agreement. The New York Domestic Relations Law (DRL) requires marital agreements to meet certain criteria in order to be enforceable by a court. A New York appellate court recently reviewed the criteria for a post-nuptial agreement in Ballesteros v. Ballesteros, ultimately finding that the agreement in question did not comply with the DRL’s requirements and was therefore unenforceable.

As a very general rule, a contract does not need to be in writing to be enforceable. Numerous exceptions to this rule exist, including the DRL’s requirements for marital agreements. Section 236(B)(3) of the DRL establishes two basic criteria for an enforceable marital agreement. It must be (1) in writing and (2) “subscribed by the parties, and acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded.” In plain English, this means that a written marital agreement must follow the same procedures as a deed conveying real property. The parties must sign the document in front of a notary public, and it must bear the notary public’s signature and seal, as well as a “certificate of acknowledgement” in a form prescribed by state law.

The court’s recital of the facts in Ballesteros shows a complicated factual situation surrounding a relatively straightforward legal question:  whether or not the agreement signed by the parties after their marriage, but before the wife filed for divorce, was enforceable. The parties were married in 2008, several days after signing a pre-nuptial agreement “‘opting out’ of New York’s statutory scheme governing maintenance and equitable distribution.” About a year later, the husband said he wanted a divorce and told the wife to move out. He reportedly changed his mind about the divorce shortly afterwards.

The wife, who did not want a divorce at that point, told the husband that “she needed financial security from him” in order to try to work out their problems and stay married. They both signed a document, drafted by the wife, called a “promissory note,” in which the husband promised to purchase for the wife a condominium for at least $250,000 if they went forward with a divorce. The husband had the document notarized, but the notary did not include a certificate of acknowledgement.

The parties reportedly tried to work on the marriage, but the husband eventually asked the wife to move out again. The wife filed for divorce in June 2012 and asked the court to enforce the promissory note. The Supreme Court in Putnam County ruled that the promissory note was enforceable. The Appellate Division reversed this ruling, however, finding that, since the document did not include a notary’s certificate of acknowledgement, it did not meet the requirements of § 236(B)(3) of the DRL.

A divorce case in the New York court system requires careful planning and preparation. A knowledgeable and experienced divorce attorney can help you understand your rights and obligations, prepare a strong case for you, and advocate on your behalf in and out of court. Ingrid Gherman has represented clients in New York City family law proceedings for over 30 years. Contact us online or at (212) 941-0767 today to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Claim of “Mutual Mistake” Is Insufficient to Rescind Prenuptial Agreement in New York Divorce Case, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, October 27, 2016

New York City Court Allows Marital Fraud Lawsuit to Proceed, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, October 20, 2016

Setting Aside a New York Marital or Separation Agreement, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, August 28, 2015

Photo credit: Alex756 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.