Weisfeld-Ladd v. Estate of Ladd, 2006 WL 231481 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb 01, 2006)

Clearly, the couple at the center of this dispute thought that when they signed their prenuptial agreement they were waiving any spousal rights they had to each other’s separate property – including rights of a surviving spouse to an elective share under 2005->Ch0732->Section%20201#0732.201″>F.S. § 732.201. Nonetheless when husband died, surviving spouse went ahead and filed a petition seeking an elective share of his estate. The 3d DCA summarized her testimony regarding the couple’s clear intent as follows:

“Most importantly, the wife testified as to her understanding of the Prenuptial Agreement. It was her understanding that if she would have passed away, her son would have inherited all of her separate property, and that upon her husband’s death, his children would inherit all of his separate property.”

“[Wife] even acknowledged that if she would have predeceased her husband, her son would have been entitled to inherit all of her separate property. Based upon the wife’s interpretation of the Prenuptial Agreement, it is clear that the husband and wife’s intent would have been defeated if the surviving spouse was permitted to receive an elective share. There is no doubt that the wife clearly understood that, by entering into the Prenuptial Agreement, she would not receive any of the husband’s separate property upon his death, and that all of his separate property would go to his two children.”

The only problem was that the prenuptial agreement didn’t actually say what the parties thought they were agreeing to. In fact, the key language of the prenuptial agreement doesn’t mention waiving spousal elective share rights at all, what it does say is, to say the least, “ambiguous”:

“It is [husband’s] intent that, in the event of his death, all of his separate property be given to his children, STEVEN M. LADD and BETHANY S. LADD, or as otherwise provided for in his Last Will and Testament.”

Was that one sentence enough under 2005->Ch0732->Section%20702#0732.702″>F.S. § 732.702 to effectuate a valid waiver of spousal elective share rights? According to Dade County Probate Judge Maria M. Korvick it was, so she denied surviving spouse’s elective-share petition. By the way, here are the portions of 2005->Ch0732->Section%20702#0732.702″>F.S. § 732.702 focused on by the 3 DCA:

“rights of a surviving spouse to an elective share *** may be waived, wholly or partly, before *** marriage, by a written contract**** Unless the waiver provides to the contrary, a waiver of ‘all rights,’ or equivalent language, in the property or estate of a *** prospective spouse *** is a waiver of all rights to elective share****
(emphasis added by 3d DCA).”

What I find most interesting about this case is how the 3 DCA seems to go out of its way to affirm the trial court’s ruling denying the surviving spouse’s elective share claim. Obviously swayed by a compelling set of facts, the 3 DCA arrived at the “right” conclusion as follows:

First: Assume findings of fact NOT included in the trial court’s order:

“The trial court did not make a specific finding as to whether the Prenuptial Agreement was ambiguous or unambiguous. However, as the trial court allowed the wife to testify as to her intent when entering into the valid Prenuptial Agreement, we assume that the trial court found that the Prenuptial Agreement was susceptible of more than one construction and, therefore, ambiguous.”

Second: Agree with findings of fact ASSUMED into the record:

“Upon review of the Prenuptial Agreement, we agree with the trial court’s determination that the Prenuptial Agreement was ambiguous.”

Third: After assuming factual findings into the record that weren’t there to begin with, then agreeing with the trial court’s assumed findings of fact, hold that “PAROL EVIDENCE,” i.e., testimony by the surviving spouse completely undermining her own petition, was validly admitted to construe the “ambiguous” prenuptial agreement:

“As the agreement was ambiguous, the trial court properly admitted parol evidence to shed light on the intent of the parties when entering into the Prenuptial Agreement.”

Presto! Good facts save the day!