How Maryland Law Addresses Unconscionability Arguments in Prenuptial Agreement Enforcement Cases

Prenuptial agreements and postnuptial agreements can be traps for the unwary. Signing an agreement with unfavorable terms can — absent a court judgment invalidating the contract — cost you greatly. (In one recent Maryland case, it cost the husband $7 million.) Before you sign, make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting into. To do that, be sure you’ve consulted with an experienced Maryland prenuptial agreement lawyer.

As another example, there’s D.R. and L.R., a late middle-aged couple who signed their prenuptial agreement in the fall of 1992. The husband’s lawyer drafted the document. The wife’s attorney counseled against signing the agreement, but the wife signed anyway.

The agreement’s terms called for neither spouse to receive alimony and that the couple would not split income or assets. It also said that “the parties expect to reside together in a location, style, and manner mutually suitable to them,” and that ownership “of any homes, residences, or other real property acquired by [husband and wife] shall be held by the parties as Tenants in Common with no rights of survivorship.”

In 2019, the couple divorced, and the husband sought to enforce the agreement. Both the trial court and the appeals court ruled in favor of the wife. Although the document was fair and reasonable (and therefore valid) when the spouses signed it, it was unconscionable at the time of enforcement.

The problem was not the facial terms of the contract, but its practical impact. The spouses lived in two homes — one in Florida and one in Massachusetts — purchased during the marriage. Unbeknownst to the wife, the Florida property was in the husband’s name alone, and the Massachusetts home was titled in a trust the beneficiaries of which were the husband’s adult children from a previous marriage.

Enforcing the agreement as written, the court reasoned, would be unconscionable, as it would have “essentially stripped [the wife] of substantially all her marital interests.” As a result, the court found the agreement unenforceable.

How Maryland Does Unconscionability Analysis

This divorce — and legal case — arose in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That’s important to know because a difference between Massachusetts law and Maryland law was central to the wife’s success. Massachusetts says that, for prenuptial agreements to be enforceable, they must be “both (1) fair and reasonable at the time of execution (the “first look”), and (2) conscionable at the time of enforcement (the “second look”).

Maryland does something distinctly different. Maryland law says that, for a prenuptial agreement to be unenforceable, it must have been the result of fraud, duress, coercion, mistake, undue influence, or incompetency. Alternately, it can be unenforceable if it is unconscionable, but Maryland only analyzes a prenuptial agreement’s unconscionability at the time the agreement was entered. In Maryland, there is no “second look” at unconscionability.

What that means is that, if this case had proceeded in the courts of Maryland, the wife would have needed a different litigation approach or the husband would have had a much better chance of securing the enforcement of the agreement as written.

This also should tell you something about the profound importance of getting meaningful and knowledgeable legal counsel before you sign any prenuptial agreement. The experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC offer our clients thoughtful, careful, knowledgeable advice regarding prenuptial agreements and all other family law matters to ensure that your interests are protected to the maximum extent possible. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

Contact Information