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Details Matter: A Florida Appeals Court Ruling and a $1.5 Million ‘a’ in a Prenuptial Agreement

Rarely have truer words been written into the first sentence of a court opinion than last year, when a Florida appeals court declared that the “tiniest words can have the greatest consequence.” If you work within the field of high-dollar commercial contracts, you probably know that to be true. If you are simply preparing to get married, the intricacies and minutia of the law of contract drafting may not be at the forefront of your mind. That’s why you should make sure you have an experienced Florida prenuptial agreement attorney representing you. Just like any other contract, the inclusion or exclusion of as little as a single word may completely change the outcome of your situation, costing you (or gaining you) massive sums. When millions are potentially on the line, don’t take chances.

A case from across the state is a good example of just how much can be riding on just one word. M.F. was a successful entrepreneur. M.F.’s fiancee, J.L., was a lawyer in the Sarasota area. A few weeks before the couple wed in 2006, they signed a prenuptial agreement. The agreement called for a cash payout from the husband to the wife in the event of a divorce, with the amount of that payout increasing over time. The document specifically said that the husband was to pay to the wife within 90 days, “of the date either party files a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage the amount listed below next to the number of full years they have been married at the time a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is filed.”

That all seems somewhat straightforward, right? In some circumstances, it could have been, not always. That’s why you retain the most skillful attorneys to draft any contract for you, including a prenuptial agreement. Because, as the old saying says, the “devil is in the details” and imperfect drafting can leave you vulnerable to possible ambiguity.

This couple fell into one of those situations. The wife filed for divorce in 2013 but voluntarily dismissed it before it was ever served on the husband. Three years later, she filed again and, this time, she completed the process and got her divorce. So, the question which spawned litigation that went all the way to a Florida District Court of Appeal was… which divorce petition were the parties required to use to calculate the cash payment the husband owed the wife? If it was the 2013 filing, the payout was $2.7 million (which was the number corresponding to seven years of marriage.) If it was the 2016 petition, then the payment was $4.2 million (the sum corresponding to 10 years of marriage.)

The ‘heart of the problem’ came down a single ‘a’

Ultimately, the appeals court sided with the husband and concluded that the correct petition was the 2013 divorce filing. How close was the wife to a possible win and collecting an extra $1.5 million? The appeals court said that “the use of this indefinite article is the heart of the problem.” In other words, it came down to a single use of the word “a.”

The agreement said that the number of years was to be calculated based on the date that either spouse “files a petition” for divorce. If the agreement simply had said “files the petition” instead of “files a petition,” then that could have changed the context and allowed the wife to win.

Courts can’t fix illogical but valid contracts

One other lesson that this case teaches is the limitation the courts have when they encounter a contract provision that is arguably illogical. Florida law is clear that courts don’t have the power to “improve” flawed contracts. Even if a contract provision is illogical, if the agreement itself is valid, a judge cannot fix the problem to correct an illogical clause or a bad bargain.

In your high-asset marriage, a bad prenuptial agreement has the potential cost you millions of dollars. Don’t be the victim of a badly drafted prenuptial agreement. Protect yourself by retaining the skilled South Florida prenuptial agreement attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman.

Contact us online or by calling (954) 237-1777 to schedule your consultation and find out how this firm can help you.