Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Statute Barring Enforcement of Spousal Support Waivers, If Unconscionable, Codified Common Law—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A court order enforcing a provision of a premarital agreement waiving spousal support against a wife whose husband sought a divorce after she was severely injured in an automobile accident was improper, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Carol L. Rosendale suffered brain damage, internal injuries, and numerous broken bones in the 1997 crash. She was at one point pronounced dead, and has undergone some 15 reconstructive surgeries, with more scheduled.
Writing for Div. Three, Justice Eileen C. Moore noted that Rosendale’s impaired mental functioning was obvious to an Orange Superior Court judge who cited it in denying a request by her husband for attorney fees. While her conduct during the dissolution proceeding would “otherwise be sanctionable,” the trial judge observed, it was attributable to her injuries and there was “no conscious misconduct” on her part.
Rosendale sought reconsideration after the trial judge, having bifurcated the issue of the validity of the premarital agreement, found it to be valid. She cited Family Code Sec. 1612(c), enacted after the couple’s agreement, which provides that a premarital waiver of spousal support will not be enforced if it is unconscionable at the time enforcement is sought.
But Moore said Sec. 1612(c), enacted in 2001, was a codification of existing common law. It was therefore not necessary, she explained, to address the question of its effect on agreements already in place at the time it went into effect.
“A court will not enforce a premarital waiver of spousal support, whether the premarital agreement is executed before or after the effective date of Family Code section 1612, subdivision (c), if at the time of enforcement it would be unconscionable to do so,” she declared.
The trial judge erred in ordering enforcement of the provision without considering the issue of unconscionability, Moore said.
The justice cited Wright v. Wright (1957) 148 Cal.App.2d 257, in which a property settlement agreement was found to be unenforceable as unconscionable when the wife—a longtime tuberculosis sufferer—learned shortly after agreeing to it that her illness was likely to become incapacitating.
Settlement agreements are more favored under the law than premarital agreements, Moore reasoned.
“So, since the spousal support provision contained in the property settlement agreement at issue in Wright…was held unconscionable, a fortiori the spousal support waiver found in the premarital agreement that Carol…signed may be held unconscionable….Carol had no reason to foresee the occurrence of a debilitating automobile accident some eight years after signing the agreement. The wife in Wright had far more reason to anticipate the return of her tuberculosis than Carol had to anticipate the horrendous turn of events in her life.”
The rule followed in Wright is also consistent with other Family Code provisions, Moore said.
“These statutory provisions underscore the continued importance of spousal support in our modern society, under appropriate circumstances,” she observed, adding:
“Courts cannot permit one spouse to discard his or her disabled spouse without providing spousal support, even when a spousal support waiver in a premarital agreement would permit the same, if it would be unconscionable to do so at the time enforcement of the waiver is sought.”
The case is In re Marriage of Rosendale, G031925.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company