Life started out hopeful when the Martins got married. Some years later, they decided to enter into a marital property settlement to partition and exchange their community estate. Still, it was 13 years later when the husband filed for a divorce and sought to enforce the agreement. The wife tried to avoid the agreement by alleging, among other things, that she did not execute the agreement voluntarily and that the agreement itself was unconscionable. She alleged that the husband dictated the terms of the agreement and that her lawyer played little part in negotiating the terms. She further alleged that the husband pressured her into signing when she otherwise would not have done so. The case of Martin v. Martin made it to the Texas Court of Appeals and while the actual decision did not fully resolve the issues in the case, it is instructive on what those issues are and how courts might resolve them.
Proving Unenforceability Of An Agreement And The Proof Required
As the Martin court noted, the Texas state legislature has made it public policy that premarital and marital agreements should be enforced, and as result there is a presumption that they are in fact enforceable. But Texas law does provide a path for setting aside a presumptively valid agreement. One way is if the contesting party can prove that the agreement was not signed voluntarily. The Texas Family Code, however, does not define what it meant by “voluntary.” As interpreted by several courts, however, the term has generally been construed to mean duress and undue influence and that is a factual question dependent upon all the circumstances and the mental effect on the party claiming the execution of the document was involuntary. In the Martin case, the appeals court held that the trial court had sufficient conflict of evidence to decide the voluntary issue rather than rule as a matter of law in the husband’s favor.
A second way a marital agreement can found to be unenforceable is when there is proof that the agreement was unconscionable at the time it was signed. Unconscionable describes terms that are so unjust or one-sided in favor of one party as to shock the conscience. Texas law provides that in order to establish whether a marital agreement is unconscionable, the contesting party must prove that:
- Before the document was signed, he or she was not provided a fair and reasonable disclosure of the properties and financial obligations of the other party.
- He or she did not waive in writing voluntarily and expressly any right to disclosure beyond what was provided.
- He or she did not, or reasonably could not have had adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party.
The Martin court did not rule on this issue, but did note the fact that a bargain is not a good one does not entitle a party to be relieved from its terms where there has been no mistake and either a fair and reasonable disclosure was made or a valid waiver of disclosure was signed.
Challenging a marital agreement is a very fact specific and challenging process. Anyone who needs advice on a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement should consult with an experienced family law attorney before signing one.