Steffens v. Evans, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 4577938 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 05, 2011)

In 2002 Mr. Steffens writes his wife into his will. Things get rocky, and in 2007 the couple enters into a post-nuptial agreement that contains a waiver of all inheritance rights. Mr. Steffens dies in 2009 and the issue becomes whether his 2007 post-nup’ trumps his 2002 will. The trial court and the 4th DCA both say YES. Here’s why:

Tracking the language in section 732.702(1), the Post–Nuptial Agreement refers to the parties waiving “all rights” several times:

Each party freely and voluntarily irrevocably waives all rights in the earnings, property and estate of the other as well as any right to alimony, support or any other monetary relief in the event of a dissolution of marriage or death, except as specifically provided herein.


4.1 Except as is otherwise specifically provided in this Agreement, each party waives, relinquishes and releases all right, title and interest in and to any and all of the other party’s separate property (See Section 5) to which each party may otherwise be entitled as the spouse of the other party, widow or widower, heir at law, next of kin or distributee, upon or by virtue of a termination of the marriage of the parties by death, divorce, dissolution of marriage, annulment or otherwise….


4.2 The waiver contained herein is to be broadly construed pursuant to Section 732.702, Florida Statutes.

(emphasis added.) Accordingly, as Jeffrey’s 2002 will was executed before the parties’ 2007 Post–Nuptial Agreement, the Post–Nuptial Agreement waived any benefits that would have passed to Andrea under the 2002 will.

The Third District reached a similar result in Hulsh v. Hulsh, 431 So.2d 658 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983). In Hulsh, the court examined whether the language of a post-will antenuptial agreement between the decedent and the widow was effective to waive the widow’s right to take under the will. Hulsh, 431 So.2d at 660.

Ultimately, relying on section 732.702(1), the court determined that it had “no difficulty in deciding that the language of the antenuptial agreement was sufficient to waive Marcella’s rights to take under the provisions of Sheldon Hulsh’s will.” Id. at 662 (footnote omitted). Similarly, we find that the language of the Post–Nuptial Agreement waived Andrea’s rights to take under the provisions of Jeffrey’s will.

The issue I found most interesting was how the court dealt with a “voluntary gifts” clause in the post-nuptial agreement permitting either spouse to make gifts to the other after the post-nup’, and stating that those gifts would not be subject to the waivers contained in the post-nup. This is a common clause found in most marital agreements of any sophistication.

[“voluntary gifts” clause]

Notwithstanding the terms of this Agreement, either party shall have the right to voluntarily transfer or convey to the other party any property or interest therein, whether Separate Property or other property, which may be lawfully conveyed or transferred during his or her lifetime, or by will or otherwise upon death. Neither party intends by this Agreement to limit or restrict in any way the right and power of the other to receive any such voluntary transfer or conveyance. Such gifts shall not constitute an amendment to or other change in this Agreement, regardless of the extent or frequency of such gifts. Any gifts given by one party to the other hereafter shall constitute the receiving party’s separate property.

So if I write you into my will in 2002 but don’t die until 2009, when did I make a gift? In 2002 or 2009? For tax and property law purposes, the law is clear: no gift until 2009. That same logic apparently doesn’t extend to marital agreements. According to the 4th DCA, the gift was made in 2002 not 2009, thus the 2007 post-nup’ clearly voids it.

Thus, [the post-nuptial agreement] unambiguously refers to transfers of property after the 2007 Post–Nuptial Agreement and would not reserve Andrea’s beneficiary rights under the 2002 will.

I’m not sure this logic adds up. If I were on the 4th DCA, I would have framed my analysis of the “voluntary gifts” clause in contract-construction terms. Did the post-nup’ cover pre-existing wills or not? That how the Florida Supreme Court recently held courts are supposed to deal with beneficiary-designation forms benefiting ex-spouses. See Crawford v. Barker, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 2224808 (Fla. Jun 09, 2011), which I wrote about here. Instead, the 4th DCA hung its hat on “Andrea’s beneficiary rights under the 2002 will.”  What rights? She didn’t have any “rights” until 2009?

Lesson Learned?

Until a Florida court says otherwise, the rule seems to be that a general waiver contained in a marital agreement is good enough to void a pre-existing will, even if the marital agreement says nothing specific about the pre-existing will.

If your legal practice involves drafting marital agreements, you’ll want to make sure your “voluntary gifts” clause specifically addressed pre-existing wills, trusts, etc. If the couple intends to void a pre-existing will, you’ll want to explicitly say so. If that’s not their intent, you’ll want to say that too. Either way, specifically addressing the issue will hopefully spare all sides from the expense and stress inherent to the litigation the parties in this case lived through.