Prenuptial Agreements and Waiver of Retirement Rights

One issue that consistently comes up dealing with prenuptial agreements is whether or not rights to future retirement benefits can be waived prior to the marriage despite the fact that any such future rights will not come into existence until after the marriage.  Prior case law wasn’t particularly clear in dealing with this issue since by necessity any such prenuptial agreement implicated Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  The prior case law held that under ERISA, only a spouse can waive spousal rights to employee plan benefits, that a fiancee is not a spouse, and that such rights, therefore, cannot be effectively waived in a prenuptial agreement.

In Strong v. Dubin, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04121 (1st Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, First Department, overturned the prior case law, including its own decisions, and held that a waiver of retirement rights included in a prenuptial agreement is valid and does not violate ERISA.

The court’s reasoning in reaching this conclusion was as follows. Initially, the parties’ prenuptial agreement, read as a whole and giving effect to all provisions, expressed an intent to opt out of the statutory scheme governing equitable distribution, which encompassed plaintiff’s retirement funds.  The prenuptial agreement provided that “[t]he parties desire, in advance of their marriage, to settle their financial, property, and all other rights, privileges, obligations and matters with respect to each other arising out of the marital relationship and otherwise, as more particularly hereinafter provided”.  Article I of the prenuptial agreement provided: ”it is the intention [of the parties] . . . that the property owned by each of them shall remain completely and wholly vested in each such person in whose ownership it presently exists.”

Article I of the Agreement expressly referenced Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(3), which provides that a prenuptial agreement may include, among other things a “provision for the ownership, division or distribution of separate and marital property,” and reflects an intent to opt out of equitable distribution “with respect to the division of all marital and separate property either now in existence or which is hereafter acquired” (emphasis added), which encompasses the retirement funds at issue.   According to the Appellate Division, if this clause is disregarded, that would render the reference to property that is “hereafter acquired” meaningless, leaving that provision without force or effect.  According to the prenuptial agreement, the only assets specifically designated to be “marital property” are the prospective joint banking, savings or investment accounts or assets purchased from the proceeds of those joint accounts set forth in Article I, paragraph 5. The retirement assets in question were not held in joint names or funded with money from an account in the joint names of the parties and are not marital property within the meaning of the agreement.  The agreement also included a waiver which provided that

Except as otherwise expressly provided herein, each party hereby releases . . . the other, of and from all causes of action, claims, rights, or demands, whatsoever, in law or in equity (including, but not limited to claims for equitable distribution, distributive award or claims against the separate property of the other spouse) which either of the parties hereto ever had, or now has, against the other, except (a) nothing herein contained shall be deemed to prevent either party from enforcing the terms of this Agreement or from asserting such claims as are reserved by this Agreement to each party against the estate of the other; provided, however, that the claims so asserted arise out of a breach of this Agreement; and (b) nothing herein contained shall impair or waive or release any and all cause [sic] of action for divorce, annulment or separation, or any defenses which either may have to any divorce, annulment or separation action which may hereafter be brought by the other.

According to the Appellate Division, the contention that this waiver clause encompasses only property which either of the parties held at the time the prenuptial agreement was executed, to the exclusion of after acquired property, was unsupportable.  While the waiver clause stated that it is a release of all causes of action, claims, rights or demands whatsoever in law and in equity “which either of the parties hereto ever had, or now has against the other.” However, the illustrative claims listed include, but are not “limited to claims for equitable distribution, distributive award or claims against the separate property of the other spouse.” At the time the prenuptial agreement was signed, neither party had any of these delineated claims, all of which would accrue in the future, once the parties were married. Similarly the exceptions for breach of the antenuptial agreement and divorce demonstrate that the waiver clause was intended to apply to future causes of actions that would accrue after the marriage. In light of this language, to limit the claims to property that either party had at the time of the marriage would render the waiver clause meaningless in that property owned by either party at the time the prenuptial agreement was entered into would already be separate property as to which there is no right to equitable distribution or a distributive award.

The court further stated that for purposes of equitable distribution, a waiver of any interest in a pension as marital property by an otherwise valid prenuptial agreement is not prohibited by ERISA.  In New York, vested or matured rights in a pension plan are considered marital property subject to distribution in a divorce action to the extent that the benefits result from employment by the participant after the marriage and before the commencement of the divorce action.  There is nothing in the matrimonial law of New York prohibiting a spouse from waiving his or her interest in such marital property by agreement made before or during the marriage in accordance with Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(3).

This is an important decision since it resolved some to the uncertainty associated with waivers of future retirement rights included in prenuptial agreements.  In the future, divorce lawyers can be more comfortable in including such waivers for their clients.  In appropriate situations, value of such waiver can amount to a substantial amount of money and may become subject of litigation in divorce.

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