Can you claim you didn’t understand your prenup because you didn’t speak English and then get your prenup thrown out? The short answer is probably not, you’re likely stuck with the contract you signed even if you didn’t understand it. But that may not always be the case. The legal concept behind this idea is overreaching or undue influence. In some states, you can get a prenup thrown out for “overreaching” or “undue influence” which means the prenup was brought about by unfair conduct or uneven bargaining power, such as requesting a spouse sign a prenup that they don’t understand because they feel like they have no other choice. This may also fall under duress or coercion (more on the distinctions later). Let’s discuss this in more depth below.
What is overreaching?
In the context of prenups, the concept of overreaching is simply a way to get a prenup thrown out for unfair circumstances. In New York, a landmark case known as Gottlieb described overreaching as the “concealment of facts, misrepresentation, cunning, cheating, sharp practice, or some other form of deception.” Overreaching is essentially a way someone may pressure their spouse into signing an agreement in such a way that warrants it to be invalidated. This may include convincing a non-English speaking partner to sign a prenup they don’t understand.
What is undue influence?
Undue influence and overreaching are intertwined concepts. They both use some type of gross unfairness to create the prenup. For example, if one person has much higher bargaining power in the relationship. For example, if one partner is temporarily living in the U.S. as an immigrant, with no money, doesn’t speak English, and is pregnant, while the other partner is a U.S. citizen, speaks English, and has millions of dollars, this could be an incidence of uneven bargaining power where the more “powerful” partner exerts pressure to sign the prenup, leading to undue influence.
What is duress?
Duress (in the context of prenups) is a way to argue the prenup isn’t valid. If you can show that you signed the prenup under duress, most states will get rid of your prenup for you. They aren’t going to make you sign a prenup that you signed under duress. Duress is essentially being forced to sign a prenup based on the misconduct of your partner. In other words, your partner threatened you emotionally or physically to sign the agreement.
What is coercion?
Coercion is very similar to duress. It’s another way to invalidate a prenup (if you can prove it). Coercion is more along the lines of emotional manipulation or pressure that deprives the coerced person of their free will. However, one North Carolina court in Howell v. Landry, went so far as to say duress is the result of coercion. Either way, if you can show duress or coercion virtually all courts across the nation won’t force you to abide by the terms you agreed to under this force.
Non-English speakers and prenuptial agreements
Now, let’s turn our attention to non-English speakers and invalidating prenups based on duress, coercion, undue influence, and/or overreaching. Let’s use an example to demonstrate the issue we’re talking about. John is a United States citizen and he wants to get married to his partner Samantha who is a German citizen and doesn’t speak English. He presents her with a prenuptial agreement in English. She doesn’t understand a word of it but signs it anyway. If, down the road, they get a divorce, should she be required to abide by the terms of the agreement? Many courts would say yes, but it depends on the situation. Let’s look at a real-life case to see how a court reacts in this predicament.
In re Marriage of Gonzalez: When a court throws out a prenup for a non-English speaker
Husband and wife have a prenup. His wife grew up in Guatemala and speaks Spanish. The husband explained the prenup terms to her in Spanish. At the time of the divorce, the wife argued that the husband was misleading when explaining the contract to her in Spanish and she didn’t understand the agreement herself. From what she understood, based on the explanation of her husband, she did not know she was waiving her rights to certain property. The court agreed and said that the explanation was misleading and the wife shouldn’t be held to these terms. The takeaway? The crux of this case is that the husband was misleading when explaining the terms of the contract. Maybe if he had been straightforward about the terms, this prenup wouldn’t have been thrown out. The moral of the story is don’t be misleading in the context of your prenup!
California’s rule on non-English speakers and prenups
California actually requires prenuptial agreements to be translated into the language of someone who is not proficient in English by statute. (See Cal. Fam. Code Section 1615 (c)(3)). The statute says (in simple terms) that if one person doesn’t have a lawyer to help them and they want to enforce a prenup, they need to make sure the other person fully understands what they’re agreeing to, which includes making sure all parties understand the language used in the prenup. Basically, it’s about making sure both people understand and agree to the prenup, even if one person doesn’t speak English (and that non-English speaker doesn’t have an attorney to explain it to them).
The bottom line: make sure you and your partner both understand the prenuptial agreement
It is quite difficult nowadays to get your prenup thrown out, however, it’s not impossible. Claiming you didn’t understand your prenup because you didn’t speak English is probably not enough to get it invalidated, however, it could happen! When a non-English speaker claims they signed an agreement that they didn’t understand, they may be arguing that they signed it under undue influence, overreaching, coercion, or duress. And, if you’re in California, you’re required by statute to have either a lawyer explain the terms or have the prenup translated into the native language.
Nicole Sheehey is the Head of Legal Content at HelloPrenup, and an Illinois licensed attorney. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to prenuptial agreements. Nicole has Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School. She has a deep understanding of the legal and financial implications of prenuptial agreements, and enjoys writing and collaborating with other attorneys on the nuances of the law. Nicole is passionate about helping couples locate the information they need when it comes to prenuptial agreements. You can reach Nicole here: [email protected]