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Justices Agree to Review Ruling Jeopardizing Prenuptial Pacts

Marriage: State Supreme Court will hear appeal by Giants star Barry Bonds, whose agreement was invalidated. Decision is expected to set standards for such contracts.

July 22, 1999|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Agreeing to rule on an appeal filed by Giants baseball star Barry Bonds, the California Supreme Court decided Wednesday to review a lower court decision that could jeopardize thousands of prenuptial agreements across the state.

Earlier this year, a Court of Appeal in San Francisco had invalidated a prenuptial agreement between Bonds and his former wife, Susann "Sun" Bonds. That court later modified its ruling to allow the outfielder to go back to trial to defend his premarital contract under a new legal standard the court established.

The standard, however, made vulnerable existing prenuptial contracts in which both parties did not have independent legal counsel. Sun Bonds had no attorney when she signed the agreement on the eve of their 1988 Las Vegas wedding, and the appeals court said it was "unlikely" a trial court could find the contract valid under the new standards.

The use of prenuptial agreements in California has been growing rapidly. The Supreme Court decision in the Bonds case is expected to clarify the requirements that must be met to ensure that such pacts are valid. The ruling, which probably will be made within a year, may also change the way premarital contracts are prepared. None of the justices voted Wednesday against examining the Bonds dispute.

Robert J. Nachshin, a lawyer for Bonds, said his client was "absolutely delighted and feels vindicated" by the Supreme Court's decision to review his case.

Nachshin expressed confidence that the court would overturn the lower court decision, which said that prenuptial agreements must be strictly scrutinized if both signers did not have independent legal representation.

"It's a tremendous victory for Barry Bonds," said Nachshin, a Los Angeles family law attorney. "I always thought the Court of Appeal decision was not very well reasoned and not well thought out."

Paige Leslie Wickland, an attorney for Sun Bonds, had opposed state Supreme Court review. But she said that she was not surprised the court took the case, given its importance and wide impact, and that she expects her client to prevail.

"This is a good opportunity to decide what kind of agreements we don't want enforced," she said.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, in an April ruling written by Justice James Lambden and joined by Justice Anthony Kline, said a prenuptial agreement must be closely examined by a court when one signer has no lawyer, no opportunity to get one and does not knowingly refuse an attorney.

The majority said the decision was necessary because prenuptial agreements "profoundly affect not only the bride and groom, but also members of their prospective family."

The dissenting judge on the three-member panel, Ignazio Ruvolo, warned that the decision would "threaten the continuing viability of thousands of existing premarital agreements" in California.

The Bonds' contract established that future earnings would be kept separate and barred claims to community property upon divorce. At the time, Bonds earned $106,000 a year as a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When the couple parted, he was earning $8 million a year.

If Bonds prevails, he will not be forced to give his first wife half the assets he acquired during their seven-year marriage.

The couple met when they were 23. Barry Bonds proposed two months later, and the couple lived together briefly in Phoenix before marrying. Barry Bonds said they frequently discussed plans to keep their finances separate and his fiancee, a Swedish immigrant, assured him she wanted no part of his money.

Several days before their wedding, the couple met briefly with Bonds' representatives. One of his lawyers said he told Sun Bonds that she might want to consult her own attorney about the prenuptial agreement.

On their way to the airport for their scheduled flight to Las Vegas, the couple stopped by Bonds' attorneys' office to sign the prenuptial agreement. Giants legend Willie Mays, Bonds' godfather, had booked rooms in Las Vegas that night for the wedding party.

As the couple entered the law office, an agent for Bonds warned Sun that there would "no wedding" if she refused to sign the contract.

Bonds had his financial advisor and two lawyers present for the signing.

Sun Bonds was accompanied only by a friend from Sweden.

The prenuptial agreement was riddled with typographical errors, and neither Barry nor Sun Bonds had previously seen it.

Sun Bonds later said: "I didn't know how it worked with attorneys, that you have one and I have one."

The trial court had upheld the prenuptial agreement and awarded Sun Bonds $10,000 a month in child support for each of the couple's two children and, for a temporary period, $10,000 a month in spousal support. Sun Bonds, who has not remarried, has 80% custody of the children.

The Supreme Court also decided Wednesday to examine the 25-years-to-life sentence given to a three-strikes defendant who said he broke into a Los Angeles church for food.

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