Most recently, the April 2021 opinion of Sirgutz v. Sirgutz interpreted a marital agreement in a Florida probate under New York law, and determined that the former husband’s estate was not obligated to pay alimony payments to the former wife after the husband’s death, which occurred only a week after a final judgment of divorce.
The Facts Of Sirgutz v. Sirgutz
In Sirgutz, the former wife and the former husband executed two marital agreements: an antenuptial agreement and a modification to the agreement.
The Antenuptial Agreement waived spousal rights in each spouse’s estate, and also provided:
If a judgment of separation, divorce or annulment is entered in a proceeding between the parties commenced more than twenty years after the date of the Marriage, the husband shall pay to the wife, for her support and maintenance, $75,000 per year (in twelve equal monthly installments) for a period of two years after the date of entry of such judgment or until the wife’s earlier death or remarriage. . . .
This Antenuptial Agreement shall inure to the benefit and shall be binding upon the heirs, executors, administrators and assigns of the parties.
The Modification Agreement was signed by both parties but was not notarized.
The former husband petitioned for a divorce in Florida. Because the former wife did not live in Florida, the trial court was able to exercise jurisdiction only over the dissolution. A judgment was entered dissolving the marriage, but did not determine the distribution of the parties’ marital assets, alimony, or support.
A week after the final judgment was entered, the former husband died.
The former wife sued the former husband’s estate for enforcement of the antenuptial agreement. She alleged entitlement to lump sum alimony of $150,000 under the parties’ Antenuptial Agreement and a declaration that the Modification Agreement voided the Antenuptial Agreement’s waiver provisions.
Competing motions for summary judgment were filed. The former wife alleged that the Antenuptial Agreement showed an intent for the lump sum alimony obligation to survive the former husband’s death and that she was entitled to homestead property, support, and other marital property. The former husband’s estate argued that the antenuptial agreement did not show an intent for the lump sum alimony to survive the former husband’s death and the former wife’s remaining claims were not properly pled.
The court entered final judgment for the former husband’s estate, and the former wife appealed.
Lump Sum Alimony Did Not Survive Former Husband’s Death Under Terms Of Marital Agreement
New York law governed the issue of whether the marital antenuptial agreement intended for the alimony obligation to survive the former husband’s death.
Under New York law, it is a “well-accepted proposition that a husband’s obligation to support his wife terminates with the husband’s death.” Cohen v. Cronin, 39 N.Y.2d 42, 45 (1976). “However, the husband might, by agreement, impose upon his estate a duty to make alimony or support payments after his death.” Id. “[T]o bind the estate, a separation agreement must either specifically provide for the continuation of payments or evince, from the terms of the agreement read as a whole, a clear intention that support payments continue, notwithstanding the husband’s death.” Id. (emphasis added).
The former wife conceded that the marital agreement did not expressly provide that the lump sum alimony provision survived the former husband’s death. However, she argued that, taken as a whole, the marital agreement intended for the payment of alimony to survive death.
Here, the parties’ Antenuptial Agreement provided that “the husband shall pay to the wife, for her support and maintenance, $75,000 per year (in twelve equal monthly installments) for a period of two years after the date of entry of such judgment or until the wife’s earlier death or remarriage.” The Antenuptial Agreement did not speak to the effect of the former husband’s death. It expressly provided the former wife had an independent source of income. Under New York law, this was sufficient to establish the presumption that the obligation did not survive the former husband’s death.
In addition, the antenuptial agreement expressly provided a mechanism for the former wife’s financial support in the event of his death, stating that if the parties were still married at the time of his death, that the husband would provide for a trust fund to take effect, wherein $200,000 would be placed in trust for his wife. No similar language was included in the lump sum alimony provision.
The court reasoned that because the Antenuptial Agreement provided for the former wife’s financial support in the event of the former husband’s death only if the parties were still married and residing together, and no similar intent was expressed in the lump sum alimony provision, the former husband did not intend for the former wife to receive alimony payments following his death.
Invalid Modification Agreement
The Modification Agreement was not notarized and was therefore improperly executed and unenforceable. Even if enforceable, the Modification Agreement only evinced an intent for the former wife to have a larger election of the former husband’s estate, if the parties were still married at the time of his death.
In an interesting dissent, one judge compared the case to a New York case called Gardner v. Zammit, stating:
In Gardner, the parties were divorced and entered into a settlement agreement with terms that the wife would pay maintenance to the husband which would terminate only upon his death. The agreement also had a provision making it binding upon “the parties, their heirs, executors, legal representatives, administrators and assigns.” After the former wife died, her estate refused to make further payments to the former husband; he in turn sued the estate for the payments. Id.
The court determined that the estate was liable for the maintenance payments…..Similarly, in this case, Article 6(iv)(g) provides that the two years of alimony payments shall terminate only upon the happening of one of two events: death of the former wife or her remarriage. Further, just as in Gardner, the contract stated that it was binding on the parties’ executors and administrators. Therefore, the alimony provision is binding on the estate. I conclude that Gardner is controlling.
This case enforces the settled law that marital agreements are interpreted like contracts, both before and after a parties’ death. Even where one party is arguably harmed because unfortunate circumstances, like the death of a party, if those circumstances were not contracted for and part of the parties’ agreement, the court will not add terms to a marital agreement to make a “fair” result.