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PRENUP TRASHED: Brooklyn court dumps marriage contract in unprecedented action

Brooklyn attorney Steve Cohn

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Be careful how you get your future spouse to sign a prenuptial agreement, a Brooklyn court warns.

In an unprecedented decision, the Brooklyn Appellate Court panel unanimously ruled to throw out a prenuptial agreement between a multimillionaire and his wife on the grounds that the agreement was fraudulently induced. This move shocked even the most seasoned Brooklyn matrimonial lawyers.

Prenuptial agreements are cynically described as “weapons” that a spouse may use in a contested divorce proceeding.  In short, a prenuptial agreement, or prenup, is a written contract created prior to marriage. The prenup generally outlines all of the property each person owns and specifies what each person's property rights will be in the event the marriage is dissolved.

The 1998 marriage between Elizabeth and Peter Petrakis appeared to be a fairytale. Peter Petrakis earned his money in smoke shops and real estate to the tune of $20 million.

After a few years of marriage, the couple called it quits. There was a hurdle in the contested divorce: Elizabeth Petrakis signed a prenup stating that in the event of a divorce, Peter Petrakis would keep everything that is in name.  

For years, Elizabeth Petrakis asserted that she was coerced into signing the prenup stating that her soon-to-be husband threatened to call off the wedding if she did not sign.

“He told me he would rip it up as soon as we had kids,” Elizabeth told the New York Post. Three children later, the prenup was still intact.

The court, siding with Elizabeth’s contention that she was coerced into signing the prenup, found Peter Petrakis’ “credibility to be suspect,” and thus invalidated the prenup.

“I’m utterly surprised. I’m actually quite shocked,” Brooklyn attorney Peter C. Lomtevas said of the ruling.  For many matrimonial attorneys, it is rare that they face an invalidated prenup.

“Prenups aren’t vacated all that often,” said attorney Louis Sternberg. “This is a very new approach. Prenups are supposed to be hard to overturn.”

But not all attorneys are convinced that the ruling was unpredictable or that shocking. “There are very fact specific reasons why a prenuptial agreement would be overturned,” advised attorney Steven D. Cohn. “One factor being if the agreement was signed as a result of force or duress.”

Divorce attorney Jennifer Garcia agreed. “What [Ms. Petrakis] argued is that there was some kind of undue influence,” Garcia elucidated. “She signed the prenup four days before the wedding. That is too close to the date of the marriage, and that is why the prenup was thrown out.”

New law or not, it is clear that attorneys will be altering their strategy when advising couples pre-marriage. “If we see this sort of thing continuing then attorneys will certainly start putting extra precautions into prenuptial agreements,” said Alexander Yakov Tsiring, Esq.

Lomtevas gave a word of caution to attorneys and their clients:  “If a prenup no longer protects you, what do you do with your money?”

March 11, 2013 - 5:01pm


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