California Appellate Court Ruled Waiver of Spousal Support in Prenuptial Agreement Violated Public Policy at Time of Execution

March 7, 2013
By Thomas M. Huguenor on March 7, 2013 8:33 AM |

1221952_to_sign_a_contract_3.jpg Raymond and Roberta Melissa were married on August 8, 1985. He was 41 and she was 32. He owned a Newport Beach home, a jaguar and had a net worth of over $2 million. She rented an apartment and worked as a nurse. As a condition to getting married, Raymond required Roberta to sign a prenuptial agreement that was drafted by a neighbor's attorney-son, Craig Wilford. Roberta did not hire her own attorney to review the document, even though Wilford told her she could. The parties signed the agreement in 1985.

The issue contested in this case pertains a clause that relieves both parties of the responsibility to provide spousal support in the event of a divorce or legal separation. This part of the prenuptial agreement specifically and explicitly recognized that California law (at the time of the document's execution) prohibited the future waiver of spousal support. The agreement even cited the case, In re Marriage of Higgason, as standing for that current state of the law. However, the agreement further provided that the law regarding waiver of spousal support was in "a state of flux" and because of that, they agreed to mutually waive such rights.

The parties subsequently had a son who has autism and suffers from Fragile-X syndrome. Back in 1997, Roberta stopped working full-time. In the fall of 2009, the parties separated and then Roberta filed a petition for divorce shortly thereafter. Roberta continued to care for their son who is now 24-years-old, and works as a part-time janitor, earning $9 per hour. Roberta is unemployed.

The issue before the trial court was whether the prenuptial agreement was valid. The court's main two concerns were (1) whether it was required to apply the law in effect in 1985 when the agreement was executed; and (2) if so, whether the waiver of spousal support clause was void as against public policy. The court reviewed the Higgason case, relevant statutes and the later decision in In re Marriage of Pendleton & Fireman, and ultimately decided that it was required to apply the law at the time of execution. In so doing, the court held that it was "very clear" that spousal support waivers were void as against public policy in 1985. The court noted that relevant statutory amendments, as well as the decision in the Pendleton case, failed to overrule the Higgason case. The court entered a partial judgment holding the spousal support waiver invalid. Raymond appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed the decision. After reviewing the evolution of spousal support waivers, and the reasons for holding such provisions as against public policy (namely the preservation of marriage and its connection to society's welfare), the court pointed out that things have changed over time. In Higgason, the court held the waiver of support to be against public policy because it sought to change the wife's statutory obligation to support her husband. A later case, In re Marriage of Dawley, added to this notion by holding that public policy renders an agreement unenforceable when it promotes or encourages dissolution of the marriage.

The status of the law in 1985 was that any written waiver of the statutory duty to mutually support each other was void as against public policy. The court of appeals refused to accept the language in the parties' agreement as circumventing the law in 1985. Despite the enactment of the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act in 1986 (which failed to specifically address waivers of spousal support at the time), and the later decision in Pendleton that acknowledged the shift in public policy regarding such waivers, the court concluded that it was required to apply the law as it existed in 1985.

As a side note, in response to the decision in Pendleton, in 2002, the Legislature amended the statute requiring spouses to be represented by counsel before waiving spousal support in a prenuptial agreement, among other things.

Thomas Huguenor, a divorce attorney certified by the State of California, has represented people in San Diego with spousal support matters for over 35 years. Contact us today online or at (858) 458-9500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

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