Premarital Agreement Signed "Involuntarily"

In Martin v. Martin, the Dallas Court of Appeals ruled that a trial court had erred by granting summary judgment that a marital property agreement was valid. The wife admitted she had signed the agreement, but she said she had signed involuntarily. The court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

One of the defenses to the validity of a marital property agreement is that "the party did not sign the agreement voluntarily." Tex. Fam. Code § 4.105. An action is taken "voluntarily" when it "is taken intentionally or by the free exercise of one's will," said the court.

This case is notable because of the facts it relied upon to conclude that the wife had signed the agreement involuntarily. In short, the husband told the wife that the agreement was necessary "to protect the family's assets from possible financial ruin in the event of litigation against the business" and that he had no intention of divorcing her.

The wife's attorney advised her not to sign the agreement. The husband

constantly threatened that the family would be financially ruined and would have nothing if [the wife] did not sign the agreement. When [the wife] tried to discuss her attorney's concerns with [the husband], he became outraged and called [wife's attorney] “incapable,” “unqualified,” and insisted that [the wife] ignore [the attorney's] advice. [The wife] said that she had no choice but to sign the agreement because her sole concern was the welfare of the family.

Some years later, the husband filed for divorce. On these facts (as fleshed out in the court's opinion), the Dallas Court of Appeals concluded there was some evidence that the wife signed the agreement involuntarily.

This case appears inconsistent with cases such as Sheshunoff v. Sheshunoff, in which the Austin Court of Appeals held that a husband had voluntarily signed a marital property agreement even though his wife threatened to withdraw her guarantee of his bank loan, which would ruin the husband's business by causing the bank to call its line of credit, if the husband refused to sign; and Nesmith v. Berger, in which the same court upheld a marital property agreement where a husband refused to go on the couple's honeymoon unless the wife signed the agreement. The Dallas Court cited, but did not distinguish, Sheshunoff; the court neither cited nor distinguished Nesmith.   

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