Drafting a prenuptial agreement requires attention to the smallest linguistic details. The misuse of a word or phrase can distort the meaning in favor of one spouse or the other, and for couples with significant assets, the distortion can result in losses in excess of $1 million. The decision of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled that the meaning of a prenuptial agreement was significantly affected by the use of the article, “a” instead of a more specific article, such as “that” or “said.”
Several weeks before their marriage, the couple in question signed a prenuptial agreement. One of the agreement’s most significant terms was a paragraph that, if the marriage was ended by divorce, required the husband to make a lump-sum payment to the wife. The amount of the payment was determined by the length of the marriage “at the time a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is filed.” Unfortunately, that term proved to be ambiguous.
The document provided that the husband shall pay to the wife the sum set forth after the number of years of the marriage. The wife filed a petition for divorce in 2013, when the couple had been married for 7 years. The petition was withdrawn and the proceeding was dismissed.
The wife then filed another petition for dissolution of her marriage in 2016. This petition resulted in the dissolution of the marriage, but the parties could not agree on the length of their marriage for purposes of calculating the lump sum payment.
The trial court ruled that the calculation language referred to the petition that resulted in the end of the marriage, i.e., the petition filed in 2016, and he was awarded the wife $4.2 million. The appellate court applied several rules of contract interpretation and held that the parties could have chosen different language to establish the amount of the payment. The use of “a” was interpreted as referring to the first petition filed by either party, i.e., the petition filed in 2016. Thus, the measuring period was 7 years, not 10. The appellate court reduced the payment due to the wife to $2.7 million, a reduction of $1.5 million.