In the case of In re Estate of Greiff, the court was asked to determine if a prenuptial agreement that limited what a surviving spouse inherited was fair. The decision turned on who had the burden of proof of showing unfairness.
Helen Greiff (plaintiff) and Herman Greiff married when Helen was 65 and Herman was 77. The Greiffs signed reciprocal prenuptial agreements that waived their respective surviving spousal rights in the event of the death of the other. Herman’s will left his entire estate to his children from a prior marriage (the children) (defendants). After Herman died, Helen filed a petition seeking a spousal share of Herman’s estate. The children objected based on the prenuptial agreements.
A trial was held in Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, on the issue of the validity and enforceability of the prenuptial agreements. The Surrogate explicitly found that the husband “was in a position of great influence and advantage” in his relationship with his wife-to-be, and that he was able to subordinate her interests, to her prejudice and detriment. The court further determined that the husband “exercised bad faith, unfair and inequitable dealings, undue influence and overreaching when he induced the petitioner to sign the proffered antenuptial agreements,” particularly noting that the husband “selected and paid for” the wife’s attorney. The Surrogate’s Court invalidated the prenuptial agreements and granted a statutory elective share of decedent’s estate to the surviving spouse. The Appellate Division reversed, and Helen appealed.
A spouse contesting a prenuptial agreement bears the burden to establish a particularized inequality among the spouses before the burden to disprove fraud or undue influence shifts to a proponent of the agreement. If parties have a special relationship in which one party is in a position of trust, generally the relationship creates a fiduciary duty for that trusted party to act with special care. In the event that it is claimed that the trusted party perpetrated fraud on the other person in the relationship, there generally is a presumption of fraud, and the trusted party bears the burden to disprove the fraud.
However, there is no such presumption of fraud within the context of prenuptial agreements. While contract law generally applies to prenuptial agreements, the agreements are not construed as rigidly as commercial contracts. The relationship between those about to be married is unlike any commercial relationship. Courts thus apply a more relaxed level of scrutiny, balancing the nature of this relationship with contractual principles. In this case, the appellate court erred in failing to apply this standard. As a result, the judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for application of this standard.