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A Party’s Failure to Perform Obligations Under a Premarital Agreement May be a Defense to Enforcing the Premarital Agreement

Husband died without a will in January, 1906.  Soon thereafter his widow petitioned to be appointed as administrator of Husband’s estate.  Husband’s son contested Wife’s petition.

Son conceded that Wife would ordinarily be entitled to administer the estate, but argued that, under Husband and Wife’s premarital agreement, Wife was not entitled to any part of Husband’s personal estate, and therefore was not entitled to administer Husband’s estate.

Just before Husband and Wife married, they entered into a premarital agreement.  In part, the premarital agreement provided that Husband would support Wife and her minor daughter and would pay Wife $100 per year, and agreed that, at Husband’s death, Wife would receive $1,000.  In return, Wife relinquished all claims in and to Husband’s property at the time of the marriage and all interest in any property Husband might have had at the time of his death.

If enforceable, the premarital agreement would prevent Wife from succeeding as heir to any of Husband’s personal property.  Wife argued the premarital agreement was not legally binding upon her; she asserted the premarital agreement was the result of a fraud, mutual mistake, that the consideration of the premarital agreement was inadequate and disproportionate to the value of Husband’s property, that Husband waived the premarital agreement during his lifetime, and that Husband failed and refused to support Wife’s daughter during his lifetime and failed to provide for the $1,000 payment.  The trial court disagreed, and dismissed Wife’s claims on the grounds that Wife had entered into a premarital agreement and that Husband had fully performed his obligations thereunder.

The Appellate Court disagreed that there was no issue regarding Husband’s performance of his obligations under the premarital agreement, and opined that, where a woman releases all her rights to Husband’s property as part of a pre-marital agreement, in consideration of Husband doing certain things, Husband’s failure to perform gives Wife the ability to claim her rights as an heir.   The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Wife’s claim and remanded the case to the trial court.

In re Warner’s Estate (1907) 6 Cal. App. 361