Thursday, March 19, 2009

When $43,000,000 Just Won't Cut It

"I can't live on forty-three million dollars."
(Marie Douglas-David, testifying in her divorce trial in Hartford, Connecticut)

Described in the newspapers as a "36 year-old Swedish countess", Marie Douglas-Davis is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband, 67 year old George David, former CEO of United Technologies Corp. and (for now, anyway) a very wealthy man. How wealthy he'll be after the divorce, however, is very much up for grabs.

Although the couple has been married only since 2002, the marriage has reportedly been troubled since at least 2004, with each party accusing the other of multiple affairs. In 2005, after a series of separations and reconciliations, the couple signed a "postnuptial agreement", which provided that, should there be a divorce, Marie would get a lump-sum payment of forty-three million dollars from George, in lieu of alimony, real estate, or any other property.

Now, four years later, Marie wants the court to declare the agreement null and void. She claims she was coerced into signing it, and claims that the lump-sum amount is "embarrassingly small" in light of her husband's reported $329 million net worth. She now wants $100 million up front, plus $150,000 a month in alimony.

Although the case is in the news because of the outrageous financial statements that have been filed (among other things, Marie says she spends a minimum of $4,500 a week on clothing and $8,700 a week on travel expenses and limousine rides), I'm writing about it here because of the postnuptial agreement issue.

Postnuptial agreements are a lot less common than prenuptial agreements, and they're not recognized by statute everywhere, but they are coming into the mainstream of American family law. In essence, postnuptial agreements are prenuptial agreements entered-into after the wedding date, not before it. In the states where they are legally recognized, postnuptial agreements can address any and all of the issues that are addressed in prenuptial agreements, most notably property division and alimony in the event of divorce.

Like a prenuptial agreement, a postnuptial agreement allows a husband and wife to, in a sense, make their own law. For example, the agreement may specify that the wife shall receive alimony, even if she wouldn't normally qualify for it under her state's divorce laws. Or, the agreement may say that the parties will split their property or apportion their debts in a way that would not normally be ordered by the divorce court. The only exceptions are in the areas of child custody, support, and visitation, where the court will always consider the best interests of the child or children, and never rubber-stamp an agreement made in advance by the husband and wife. But, aside from issues involving the kids, just about everything else will be approved by the court in a state that recognizes postnuptial agreements.

So, how can Marie try to invalidate an agreement that she, herself, not only signed but had her own lawyer review? Her only hope---and, according to Connecticut legal experts, it's a very slim one---is to convince the judge that she signed it when she was "emotionally vulnerable" and not thinking straight. As she puts it, "What rational person would voluntarily accept a mere $43 million from a man worth over $300 million?"

Well, call me irrational, but I think $43 million after a seven year, childless marriage is not a bad deal. In fact, by trying to invalidate the agreement Marie is creating the possibility that the judge might invalidate the agreement and then award her less than the amount she would have gotten if the agreement had been enforced. It happens. I don't give legal advice in this column, but if I did it would be simple: take the money and run. And if you don't like to run, take a limo ride. $43 million will buy a lot of them.