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Protections Added to Prenuptial Pacts

Marriage: Davis signs a law requiring that a person waiving alimony be represented by a lawyer. It also establishes a seven-day period to consider the deal.

September 13, 2001|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday signed a bill intended to increase fairness and clarity in prenuptial agreements, legislation sparked by the bitter 1994 divorce of baseball slugger Barry Bonds and the growing popularity of such accords.

The bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) provides that a premarital waiver of alimony may be enforced only if the spouse who waives support was represented by an attorney.

In addition, it sets new conditions that must be met for a court to find that a spouse executed a prenuptial agreement voluntarily.

Among them is a requirement that a spouse have seven days to sign a prenuptial deal, and another saying a spouse must receive a full explanation of contract terms in his or her native language.

The seven-day waiting period is designed to guard against cases in which parties feel pressured into signing such pacts. In the case of Bonds, for instance, his wife-to-be, Sun, was a Swedish immigrant who said she was coerced into signing a prenuptial agreement on the eve of their Las Vegas wedding.

"This bill protects the spouses who are called upon, just before a wedding, to waive all their future rights," Kuehl said. "It still allows them to do that, but I think these protections give them a better chance to know what they're waiving."

Supporters hailed passage of the bill, SB 78, as an important new safeguard for the growing number of engaged couples signing prenuptial agreements.

Dorothy Jonas of the Coalition for Family Equity, which pushes for legal protections for women and children, called it "a very important bill that will clear up a lot of misunderstanding that we see with these agreements."

Jonas said that many women entering marriage don't anticipate how their lives may change "five or 10 years down the road, when they have two kids and have lost ground in the workplace."

"This bill just ensures that both parties get all the information they need right at the beginning," Jonas said.

One family law attorney said the law lacks specificity, and predicted it would lead to more litigation.

"The concept is good, but the family law bar feels there is a gray area that creates a lot of uncertainty," said Ronald Anteau, a Beverly Hills attorney.

Once sought primarily by older, previously married men who were marrying younger women, premarital agreements are becoming more common, even in first marriages. Already, tens of thousands of California couples have such contracts, and the number continues to grow.

The agreements' lack of uniformity, however, as well as uncertainty about their permissible scope, have caused many to wind up in court, the subject of ugly legal battles.

A year ago, the state Supreme Court issued two decisions related to the agreements, one of which upheld the prenuptial pact between San Francisco Giants player Bonds and his wife at the time.

The agreement, prepared by Barry Bonds' lawyer, provided that each party's earnings during the marriage would be that party's separate property. Sun Bonds had no lawyer present when she signed.

Nevertheless, the court held that the agreements can be enforced even if only one of the parties had a lawyer during the signing--a finding undercut by the new law.

In the other case, the court reversed a long-standing state public policy that declared waivers of spousal support in prenuptial agreements void.

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