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Prenuptial Agreement ...
Held Unenforceable Due to Seven-Year Sunset Provision

In a recent divorce action, the Appellate Court of Connecticut found a prenuptial agreement unenforceable due to a sunset provision, which did not violate public policy concerns surrounding incentivizing divorce actions.

In this case, the plaintiff husband and defendant wife were married on July 14, 2000. Three days prior, the parties entered into a prenuptial agreement which included a sunset provision that read as follows: “This Agreement Shall become null and void and of no further force and effect upon the seventh (7th) anniversary of the parties’ marriage.” As such, the seventh anniversary would occur on July 14, 2007.

On March 1, 2007, the plaintiff filed a dissolution action, but it was not until March 4, 2009, that the trial court issued its decision declining to enforce the prenuptial agreement. The court decided that the sunset provision was unambiguous, and regardless of the fact that divorce proceedings were pending, as of July 14, 2007, the agreement became unenforceable. The court further rejected the husband’s claims that the sunset provision violated public policy, and as such could not be enforced.

Prenuptial agreements are construed in the same way as contracts. Therefore, when the language of a contract is clear and unambiguous, courts will not look beyond the four corners of the document when construing application. Ambiguity is established from the plain language of the document, not from the subjective perception of one of the parties. In this case, the Appellate Court agreed that the language of the sunset provision was unambiguous. If the parties meant for the sunset provision to apply only if they were “in fact still happily married and actually celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary, the parties could have chosen language that indicated such intent.” Therefore, the Court agreed that the prenuptial agreement was unenforceable based on the sunset provision.

Antenuptial agreements that contain terms which incentivize separation or divorce are generally void for violating public policy considerations. As written in an earlier decision:

[A] provision of an antenuptial agreement waiving the right to defend against a future divorce action, or one creating a substantial economic advantage upon dissolution irrespective of fault, or one relieving one spouse of the duty to support the other during the marriage, has been said to contravene public policy.

McHugh v. McHugh, 181 Conn. 482, 488-89 (1980). In this case, however, the Appellate Court did not find that the sunset provision violated public policy. It noted that provisions which terminate a prenuptial agreement years after the marriage takes place are common. The husband argued that because he would benefit more financially if the prenuptial agreement was enforced, he had incentive to seek divorce before the seventh anniversary. However, the Court was not persuaded: the language of the sunset provision itself, as stated above, did not directly encourage the filing of a divorce action. Therefore, the Court affirmed judgment.

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