Antenuptial Agreement May Not Avoid Claim Against Estate

MARCH 11, 2002 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 37

Before David and Debra Pysell got married they signed an antenuptial agreement. When David Pysell died several years later without having written a will, Debra Pysell claimed a share of his estate. The executor of his estate objected, citing the antenuptial agreement, and the question ultimately had to be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Antenuptial (or prenuptial) agreements can set out the property rights between two people before they get married. A typical antenuptial agreement might provide, for example, that the property each spouse brings into the marriage will remain his or her own. The Pysells made such an agreement, and even went so far as to agree that any income received by either of them would remain the property of the spouse receiving it.

When Mr. Pysell died without a will, his wife would ordinarily have been entitled to receive a share of his estate—in Virginia, this share is referred to as the “elective share.” She would also be entitled to additional sums as “family” and “exempt property” allowances.

There were two problems with Mrs. Pysell’s claim to a share of her husband’s property, according to the executor of the estate. First, the Pysells had been living apart since (as the executor characterized it) Mrs. Pysell had abandoned her husband some time before his death. Second, in the antenuptial agreement Mrs. Pysell waived any claim she might have to her prospective husband’s property.

Although the antenuptial agreement appeared to deal with all of the couple’s rights, however, Mrs. Pysell pointed out that it spoke only in the present tense. In other words, she argued that she had given up only whatever interest she might have in her husband’s property during his life, and not the claim she had against his estate when he predeceased her.

The probate court agreed with Mr. Pysell’s executor and denied Mrs. Pysell’s claims. She appealed to the state Supreme Court, and that court reversed the probate court ruling and ordered distribution of a share of the estate to Mrs. Pysell.

The Pysells’ antenuptial agreement did not contain any express language regarding the right of each spouse to inherit from the other. If Mrs. Pysell had clearly signed away her right to make a claim against her husband’s estate, there would have been no question that her later claim would have been dismissed. The state Supreme Court, however, agreed with Mrs. Pysell that the provision in which she waived any claim “whatsoever” in her husband’s property only meant any claim she might have during his life.

Two of the seven justices on the Court dissented, arguing that the language of the antenuptial agreement was clear. In their view Mrs. Pysell had, as the executor urged, given up “any claim, whatsoever, in the property of” Mr. Pysell. They were outvoted on the Court, however, and Mrs. Pysell received a share of her late husband’s estate. Pysell v. Keck, March 1, 2002.

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