Earlier this year, Elizabeth Cioffi-Petrakis won an appeal overturning a bizarre premarital agreement with her millionaire husband. At the time, New York divorce lawyers described the decision as a landmark ruling. The decision garnered widespread attention in the media. Several of New York’s celebrity divorce attorneys suggested that the appellate court’s decision would have the effect of making it easier for dependent (non-monied) spouses to challenge a New York prenuptial agreement that is perceived to be unfair or one-sided.
However, at least one New York matrimonial judge believes that the Petrakis decision has been overblown. In a decision dated September 13, 2013, Justice Leonard D. Steinman of the Nassau County Supreme Court states that the Appellate Division’s decision in Petrakis did not alter the legal standard applied by courts with regard to marital agreements. Judge Steinman took notice of the attention garnered by the Petrakis decision. In so many words, he says that it is much ado about nothing. According to Judge Steinman, in Petrakis, “the Court did not change or extend the principles of law under which marital agreements are typically analyzed”, and the decision offers no assistance to the majority of litigants attempting to undo marital agreements.
In New York, the vast majority of prenuptial agreements and other marital agreements are strictly enforced by the courts. Sometimes, a court will utilize its power of equity to alter certain provisions of a marital contract. For example, a court will not enforce a waiver of maintenance (alimony) if its enforcement will force a dependent spouse to rely on public assistance. Such instances are rare.
The general rule – both before and after the Petrakis decision, is clear – marital agreements are generally enforced in New York State.