Prenuptial Agreements in Maryland/D.C.: Maryland Court Rejects “Second Look” Approach

watercolor illustration of a man signing a prenuptial agreement

In the case of Knizhnik v. Knizhnik, Case No. 1732, September Term, 2022 (MD App, April 11, 2024), the Maryland Court of Appeals explicitly rejected what is called the “second look” approach to the validity and enforcement of prenuptial agreements. This is “good” for those seeking to uphold the importance and value of prenuptial agreements with respect to marriages in Maryland and the District of Columbia. In this article, the Maryland and DC divorce attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl discuss the “second look” approach and the Knizhnik decision.

What is a prenuptial agreement?

In both Maryland and D.C., a prenuptial agreement is between future spouses. The agreement is not binding until the couple is married. Generally, prenuptial agreements concern what will happen if the couple divorces. Generally, agreements are made concerning division of property, alimony, child custody, and other matters.

In both Maryland and D.C., there are a number of legal rules that make a prenuptial agreement legally valid and enforceable. These include:

  • It must be in writing
  • Must be signed — it is best to have the signing witnesses and the signatures notarized
  • Must be signed without any form of duress or undue influence
  • Full disclosure of financial matters must be made
  • Practically speaking, each spouse must have their own attorney review the prenuptial agreement in advance of signing
  • And more

Maryland and D.C. courts will enforce valid prenuptial agreements. However, the passage of time and the conduct of the spouses might modify how the divorce courts enforce such agreements. For example, if an asset — like a beach house — is identified as “separate” property in the prenuptial agreement, this designation might not be enforced if, over the years, the spouses “converted” the beach house into marital property via manner of use, use of marital funds for maintenance and upgrades, etc. In effect, the spouses — by their conduct — changed their prenuptial agreement.

What is the second look approach?

In most jurisdictions — including Maryland and D.C. — prenuptial agreements will not be enforced if they are considered to be unconscionable. This can be thought of as an “outrage” standard. It would be unconscionable if one spouse is impoverished and the other lives richly after the divorce because of what was agreed to in the prenuptial agreement. Generally, if a divorce court holds that a prenuptial agreement is unconscionable, the whole agreement is nullified.

The “second look” approach is a legal judicial method of applying concepts of unconscionability even to a valid prenuptial agreement. Divorce courts in Massachusetts, Alaska, Michigan, and other States use this approach. The gist is that even if a prenuptial agreement is valid, it might be unconscionable to enforce it because circumstances have changed drastically since it was signed. A couple of examples include a dramatic deterioration of one spouse’s mental or physical condition or what was agreed to in terms of alimony (or other financial matters), which has become unconscionable because of inflation and other economic changes.

The Knizhnik decision

As noted, in the Knizhnik decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected using the second look approach. In effect, the court held that, under Maryland law, divorce had sufficient powers and authority to evaluate the conscionability of prenuptial agreements. Adding the second look approach was not necessary and was not approved by the Maryland Supreme Court.

Maryland And D.C. Family Law Attorneys

Contact the seasoned and experienced Maryland and D.C. family law lawyers at The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl for more information. We have the skills and expertise you need. We have proven experience with family law for Maryland and the District of Columbia. Schedule a consultation today or call us at (410) 696-4326 or (202) 964-7280. We have offices in Columbia, MD, and Washington, DC.

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