Taylor v. Taylor, — So.2d —-, 2009 WL 186155 (Fla. 1st DCA Jan 28, 2009) [Attorney Interview]

I wrote here in 2006 about an "ambiguous" premarital agreement that the 3d DCA held was a valid waiver of a widow’s marital rights under F.S. § 732.702. Here’s the clause at the center of the 3d DCA case:

"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."

In that case the court relied on evidence outside of the four corners of the agreement as the basis for enforcement. In other words, the 3d DCA held this clause was NOT precise enough on its own to effectuate a waiver of spousal rights under F.S. § 732.702, so the probate court was right to accept parol evidence when enforcing it.

Fast forward to the present and the linked-to opinion out of the 1st DCA. Here’s the waiver clause at the center of the new case:

"All property which belongs to each of the above parties shall be, and shall forever remain, their personal estate, including all interest, rents, and profits which may accrue from said property, and said property shall remain forever free of claim by the other."

According to the 1st DCA this clause was just fine, thank you very much. No ambiguity here. In fact the 1st DCA goes out of its way to let the probate court know that it should NOT have taken parol evidence to "decipher" its meaning. Here’s how the 1st DCA explains its ruling upholding this clause on the grounds that under F.S. § 732.702 a contract’s broadly-stated intention to waive spousal rights in whatever form they may take is sufficient:

Application of section 732.702(1) leads us to conclude that the trial court erred in determining that the prenuptial agreement was ambiguous as to Appellee’s rights in the decedent’s estate. Section 732.702(1) does not require that the parties specify an intent to relinquish rights given to surviving spouses in order to effectively relinquish those rights. Instead, the statute provides that a general relinquishment of “all rights” or equivalent language is sufficient to accomplish this purpose. Here, Appellee agreed, under paragraph one, that after marriage, the decedent’s property would “forever remain [his] personal estate” and that such property would be “forever free of any claim by [Appellee].” Because this language is equivalent to a statement that Appellee waived “all rights” in the decedent’s property or estate, section 732.702(1) compels a conclusion that the prenuptial agreement was a valid waiver of those rights.

Lesson learned?

I think it’s impossible to reconcile the different approaches taken first by the 3d DCA in 2006 and then by the 1st DCA above when applying F.S. § 732.702 to what all of us can agree are less than artfully drafted prenuptial agreements. So what’s a probate litigator to do? Cover all your bases. How? Argue in the alternative: build a record that wins your client’s case based both on parol evidence (à la the 3d DCA’s approach in 2006) and on the text of the agreement itself (à la the 1st DCA’s approach in the linked-to case above). Either way, you’re ready, willing and able to win your case.