If your prenuptial agreement includes wording to the effect that the property of the parties acquired before and during the marriage is to remain separate, you may be wondering how such provisions would be applied in the event of a divorce. As noted, NYC divorce lawyer advises the Court of Appeals of New York handed down an answer to this very question on December 18, 2008. In Van Kipnis v. Van Kipnis the Court enforced a prenuptial agreement agreed to in France, and gave effect to a provision barring the equitable division of property.
In the provisions of the Van Kipnis agreement, the parties elected to follow a separation of estates scheme, rather than the community property system that is the default in France. The terms of the contract were that, “each spouse shall retain ownership and possession of the chattels and real property that he/she may own at this time or may come to own subsequently by any means whatsoever.” One party contended that this provision was only intended to apply to property ownership while the parties were married, but not its distribution should a divorce occur. The Court disagreed based on the plain language of the contract, which contained nothing to that effect. Courts enforce the terms of a prenuptial agreement based on the intent of the parties executing. The way that courts determine that intent is by looking at the plain wording of the contract, not the claims of the parties make about it’s meaning after the fact.
The party opposing the separate property provisions also contended that because the agreement was not an express waiver of New York’s equitable distribution default, but instead an opt out of France’s community property system, the property had to be divided equitably under New York’s Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(5). Again, the Court disagreed, reasoning that there are two ways that prenuptial contracts may be worded to circumvent the default system of equitable distribution. First, parties may include specific wording that expressly waives equitable distribution, and second, they may designate property that would normally be considered marital property subject to equitable distribution, as separate assets, never to be construed as jointly owned. The Court held that the Van Kipnis agreement was an example of the latter method of bypassing equitable distribution.
As a couple negotiates the terms of a prenuptial agreement, it is important that both individuals ensure that the language therein is a complete, clear, and unambiguous representation of their intentions in the event of a divorce. This language is what courts will use to interpret the meaning of the agreement, not any other statements of the intended meaning. Moreover, the fact that a prenuptial contract does not explicitly opt out of the default property division scheme of equitable distribution does not mean that the terms of the agreement are not providing for exactly that.