One question we are routinely asked by our clients is whether nuptial agreements, either pre or post, carry any weight in Court. After all, after going to the effort of entering into an agreement to protect pre-marital assets, if this held no legal weight, what would be the point?
Take the recent high profile divorce case of Kirsty Bertarelli from Italian-born Swiss businessman Ernesto Bertarelli. As Tatler points out, “The former husband and wife were listed together at 14th place in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, with a combined estimated fortune of £9.2 billion…” Whilst there is speculation as to the exact amount, it is believed that Ms Bertarelli received a divorce settlement of around £350m, in addition to a property on the shores of Lake Geneva worth £52m, and she retains ownership of an £8m ski chalet in the Swiss resort of Gstaad. This would make Ms Bertarelli the richest “British born divorcee in legal history.” In this case, the couple are believed to have entered into a pre-nuptial agreement when they married in 2000, and it is reported that they wanted to avoid a lengthy and drawn-out legal battle. The existence of the ‘pre-nup’ may have allowed the couple to focus on reaching such an agreement out of court. So just how legally enforceable are nuptial agreements in England and Wales?
Are nuptial agreements legally enforceable?
Contrary to what many people believe, nuptial agreements are not legally enforceable, and the Court has the final say when it comes to deciding how assets should be divided in an application for financial remedy following divorce. The Court will, however, take nuptial agreements into consideration by giving them appropriate weight.
The Court is required to take into account a range of factors when deciding on a financial order in accordance with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (MCA 1973), Section 25; these include:
- the income, earning capacity, property and other financial resources which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future
- the financial needs, obligations and responsibilities which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
- the standard of living enjoyed by the family before the breakdown of the marriage;
- the age of each party to the marriage and the duration of the marriage;
- any physical or mental disability of either of the parties to the marriage;
- the contributions which each of the parties has made or is likely in the foreseeable future to make to the welfare of the family
- the conduct of each of the parties.
Based on these factors, the nuptial agreement may be given a lesser or greater weight by the Court.
Nuptial agreements – a matter of fairness
It is important to understand that there is a difference between saying that a nuptial agreement is legally enforceable versus saying that a nuptial agreement carries weight when deciding a financial settlement. The principle that weight should be given to a nuptial agreement was established in the landmark case of Radmacher v Granatino  UKSC 42. In Radmacher, the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that weight should be given by Courts to a nuptial agreement when exercising their discretion under section 25 of the MCA 1973; the judge stated, “The Court should give effect to a nuptial agreement that is freely entered into by each party with a full appreciation of its implications unless in the circumstances prevailing it would not be fair to hold the parties to the agreement”.
All of this means that a nuptial agreement should be given due weight by the Court where it is fair to do so. The word ‘fair’ is key here. The supreme Court referred to other landmark cases, including McFarlane v McFarlane  UKHL 24, in which it was established that fairness should be based on the principles of:
- need – i.e. it is fair to take into account the needs of both parties to a divorce;
- compensation – this means that if one person is left financially stronger once both parties’ needs are met, the Court may award some compensation to the other person, and;
- sharing – i.e. each party to a divorce is entitled to an equal share of their joint assets unless there is a good reason otherwise (i.e. if some assets were acquired before getting married).
The Court will apply a three-part fairness test when faced with a case in which there is a nuptial agreement:
1) That the agreement was freely entered into;
2) Both parties have a full appreciation of the implications of the agreement; and
3) it is fair to hold both parties to the agreement in the context of the circumstances prevailing.
In practical terms it is widely considered that a pre-nuptial agreement should be signed at least 28 days prior to the marriage, and indeed not less than 21 days prior.
The court will consider each agreement and case on the basis of its own context and facts so specialist family law advice is always required whether you are considering entering into a nuptial agreement, or have one and are looking to divorce.
Different jurisdictions have varying attitudes towards nuptial agreements, but in many cases where there is a nuptial agreement, there will be an international element. Regardless of whether the nuptial agreement was prepared and signed in England and Wales or in another jurisdiction, if the divorce is being heard in England and Wales, the court will apply English law to its assessment of the agreement.
The court will carry out the three stage assessment detailed above when considering the foreign nuptial agreement, in line with the other factors it must consider pursuant to the Matrimonial Causes Act. Where the nuptial agreement was prepared and signed in a jurisdiction in which nuptial agreements are enforceable, this can be good evidence that the parties intended to be bound by it.
When it comes to nuptial agreements, whether drawn up before or after marriage, as long as they are freely entered into in a fair and transparent manner by both parties who understand the full implications of the decisions made, case law requires that Courts give them appropriate weight. In addition, the existence of a nuptial agreement can help focus the parties’ minds during a divorce and can be a good starting point for negotiations to ensure an amicable and timely financial settlement is reached for the good of both parties and any children involved.
Edwards Family Law is a niche London-based firm specialising in high-net-worth divorce and international family law. To find out more about pre or post-nuptial agreements, please phone +44 (0)20 3 983 1818 or email email@example.com. All enquiries are treated in the strictest confidence.