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Court of Special Appeals: Illness, threat doom prenup

A Maryland appeals court has invalidated a prenuptial agreement that a woman signed 26 years ago while dealing with severe morning sickness and a threat by her fiancé — who had insisted she prove her fertility before marriage — that he would call off the wedding if she did not sign it immediately.

The prenuptial agreement, which a Talbot County trial judge had also struck down on the grounds of duress, would have denied Mary Lou Lee alimony and a right to marital property.

In its 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals noted that Robert S. Lee attributed the failure of his prior marriage to the couple’s failure to have children, and said he never would have married Mary Lou Lee had she not first become pregnant.

“Her illness, combined with the prospect of having a wedding canceled shortly before it was scheduled to occur and becoming a single mother, when becoming pregnant was a prerequisite to marriage imposed by the party demanding the prenuptial agreement, would probably overcome the mind of a person of reasonable firmness,” Judge Robert A. Zarnoch wrote for the appellate court this week. “Therefore, because we agree that the impending and threatened harm Ms. Lee was subjected to would overcome the mind of a reasonable person and she was not afforded meaningful time to meet with counsel prior to signing the agreement, we conclude that there was duress in signing the agreement.”

Nicolas Orechwa, Mary Lou Lee’s attorney, said Wednesday that the opinion “speaks for itself.”

Robert Lee’s attorney, Douglas A. Collison, did not answer telephone messages Wednesday seeking comment on the decision and whether an appeal is planned. Collison is with Kopen & Collison LLP in Easton.

The prenuptial agreement’s validity became the major point of contention as Ms. Lee moved for alimony and an equitable division of her husband’s retirement funds after filing for divorce on April 11, 2011.

Ms. Lee testified last year in circuit court that the first time she saw the agreement was when her husband-to-be handed it to her on Aug. 20, 1987, and told her to sign it immediately or the wedding was off. Ms. Lee said she was in the throes of morning sickness, which caused her to lose 25 pounds, and was hospitalized for three weeks after the wedding.

“I loved [Robert] and I thought I was going to be spending the rest of my life with him,” she testified. “And I did not want to, as I said, I did not want to be a single mother. I didn’t know what I was going to do if I didn’t sign it. I was forced into signing it.”

The Lees, who were married on Sept. 6, 1987, now have four adult children. Their divorce proceedings are pending, according to court records.

Mr. Lee testified that he had many discussions with Ms. Lee about signing a prenuptial agreement and that they had met with an attorney, who helped draft the accord. But, on cross-examination, he could not remember when that meeting took place, according to Monday’s opinion.

Talbot County Circuit Judge Broughton M. Earnest found Ms. Lee’s testimony more credible, noting that the agreement contained no clause suggesting that either party had consulted an attorney. On March 30, 2012, Earnest held the agreement void and unenforceable due to Ms. Lee’s duress at the time of signing.

Mr. Lee sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, which upheld Earnest’s ruling. In its unreported decision, the appellate court applied Pennsylvania law, noting that the accord provided that state’s law governed the document and that the couple was married there.

“In applying Pennsylvania’s standard of duress to the facts of this case, we conclude that the circuit court was not clearly erroneous in finding that Ms. Lee was subjected to a level of threatened or impending restraint sufficient to overcome the mind of a person of reasonable firmness,” Zarnoch wrote. “Due to the nature of the ultimatum, having been told that she must sign the agreement on the spot or forfeit the wedding, Ms. Lee was clearly deprived of any meaningful time to meet with counsel prior to signing the agreement.”

Ms. Lee “was blindsided by the agreement and did not know of its existence or Mr. Lee’s intention to have her sign it at any time before it was presented,” Zarnoch added.

Orechwa, Ms. Lee’s attorney, said he had argued unsuccessfully before the courts that Maryland law should apply to the agreement. Orechwa said his research indicated that Pennsylvania has “more pure contract law,” whereas Maryland law focuses on the relationship of the parties, opening the door for the argument that the contract should be void because one of the parties was under duress.

The courts, however, concluded that even Pennsylvania law would not protect an agreement made under such duress, added Orechwa, of Brodsky Renehan Pearlstein Lastra & Bouquet Chtd. in Gaithersburg.

The case is Lee v. Lee, No. 0288, Sept. Term 2012. As an unreported opinion, it governs the action between the two parties but is not binding on judges in other cases.

Judges Patrick L. Woodward and Lawrence F. Rodowsky joined Zarnoch’s opinion. Rodowsky, a retired judge, was sitting by special assignment.