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Saturday, November 15, 2008

SEPARATION DOES NOT EQUAL DIVORCE

A husband and wife enter into a prenuptial agreement. The agreement provides that it continues to apply even through "separation and reconciliation." Instead of separating and reconciling, the couple divorces and remarries. The issue arises whether the agreement continues to apply to the new marriage.

This was the issue in a recent Florida case, where after remarriage the husband died, and the wife sought to exercise property rights she had given up under the prenuptial agreement. Do you think the agreement continued to apply - that is, does "separation and reconciliation" mean the same thing as "divorce and remarriage?"

In my mind, the answer is no way - divorce is the legal dissolution of marriage - separation is just that, the parties ceasing to live together but without divorce. The trial court didn't agree with me (or the surviving wife), and held that "separation and reconciliation" = "divorce and remarriage," and thus the agreement continued to apply to the new marriage. It held this, even though as a general rule a prenuptial agreement does not survive the termination of a marriage.

The appellate court did read it my way, however.  It reversed the trial court, holding that the wife was free of the prenuptial agreement after the divorce, and that the "separation and reconciliation language" did not carry it over to the remarriage.

Clients often wonder why lawyers often take 10 words to say something in an agreement that could have been said in 5. This case is one reason - no matter how obvious a word may seem, sometimes you have to add a lot more language to make sure every knows what you meant if the parties want to fight about it. Its also a little bit scary, since this is not the first time I have seen plain language distorted by a trial judge beyond what was ever intended or its common, everyday meaning. Luckily, the appellate court was able to correct the error in this case, but there are instances where it is not economically viable to appeal or where the appellate court is not of a mind to disturb the ruling of the trial court.

SVETLANA A. OZEROVA HERPICH v. THE ESTATE OF HOWARD M. HERPICH, 33 Fla. L. Weekly D2653a, (5th DCA), Case No. 5D07-3920. Opinion filed November 14, 2008.

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