If you draw up a prenuptial agreement in another country, will its terms be enforced in New York state?

In 2008, the New York Court of Appeals answered this question in Van Kipnis v. Van Kipnis. Gregory and Claire Van Kipnis were married in Paris, France, in 1965. He was a U.S. citizen who had recently completed college while she was a Canadian citizen studying at the Sorbonne.

She had a French ‘contrat de marriage’ drafted and arranged for a lawyer explain its terms to Mr. Van Kipnis in English. In the agreement, the couple opted out of France’s community property system and agreed that each spouse would retain ownership of property they owned before the marriage or acquired on their own afterward.

After the marriage, the couple moved to New York, where they remained until they divorced in 2003. The divorce was granted in Massachusetts, where Mr. Van Kipnis now lived, but the New York courts addressed the matter of property division, as the couple had spent most of their married life there.

New York’s equitable distribution system takes the position that assets acquired during a marriage, with certain exceptions like inheritances or gifts, are subject to a fair and equitable division upon divorce. Both sides agreed that it would apply to their jointly owned homes in New York and Massachusetts, but Mrs. Van Kipnis argued that it should also apply to their separately-held bank accounts and assets: the time, her ex-husband was worth $7 million while she had liquid assets of $700,000 to $800,000.

Mrs. Van Kipnis insisted that the separate property arrangement in the prenuptial agreement was only a legal formality intended to protect each spouse’s assets from prospective creditor claims. It was never, she said, intended to specify how property would be divided in the event of divorce. She also claimed that the agreement was an opt-out of France’s community property law and not a waiver of New York’s equitable distribution system.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, as the contract stated nothing to that effect. It emphasized that courts enforce prenuptial agreements based on the intent of the parties signing them and the only way to determine intent was the contents of the document, not interpretations made after the fact. Consequently, it sided with Mr. Van Kipnis.

The Van Kipnis confirmed that couples negotiating a prenuptial agreement need to ensure that their intentions are expressly stated in the document. No matter where it was drawn up, New York courts will only interpret the agreement based on what it says, not what the parties later claim that it means. Working with a family law attorney can help ensure that when you create a marital agreement, its meaning won’t be up for debate in the future. Contact the law office of Jayson Lutzky if you are considering divorce or a family court action. Mr. Lutzky is an lawyer with an office in the Morris Park area of the Bronx, NY. He has over 35 years of experience and can be reached at 718-514-6619.