Postnuptial Agreement Prevents Widow from Acquiring Proceeds of a Wrongful Death Suit

William Rickman (husband) and Virginia Rickman (widow) married in 1987. Both parties had been previously married and had children from the prior relationships. In 2001, the parties entered into a postnuptial agreement, in which each party waived their right to the property of the other spouse. Specifically, the spouses included a provision that stated:

1221951_27660008“Release of marital rights. Each party hereby waives and releases all rights including, but not limited to statutory allowance; and all other rights which they may have acquired by reason of their marriage.”

The husband died in 2010, and the widow agreed that she was not entitled to any of his estate assets due to the postnuptial agreement. However, the administrator of husband’s estate filed a wrongful death suit in 2011, and the matter was settled out of court in 2012, and the widow then sought to recover a portion of this settlement.

It was undisputed that the widow was not entitled to any of her husband’s property at the time of his death because she had signed the postnuptial agreement. However, the widow argued that she was entitled to take an intestate share of husband’s wrongful death settlement, as these proceeds were not covered by the husband’s will.

Generally, Tennessee recognizes both antenuptial (prenuptial) and postnuptial agreements as valid and enforceable when they are entered into voluntarily, for consideration and with full knowledge of the other party’s assets. Generally, postnuptial agreements are treated in the same manner as antenuptial agreements, and they are interpreted and enforced just like other contracts.

All contracts must be supported by adequate consideration. Consideration for a contract may be in the form of a benefit to the promisor or a detriment or obligation to the promisee. Marriage itself is sufficient consideration for a prenuptial agreement. However, when the parties enter into a postnuptial agreement, they are already married, and the marriage itself cannot provide consideration.

Postnuptial agreements must also have safeguards to protect the parties from fraud, coercion or undue influence due to the confidential relationship between spouses. Because of the special relationship that exists between spouses, postnuptial agreements are subjected to close scrutiny by Tennessee judges to ensure the agreement is fair and equitable.

The relationship of husband and wife is one of special trust and confidence, and this requires the utmost good faith and frankness in their dealings with each other. Courts strive to ensure one spouse does not take advantage of the other by means of oppression, deception or fraud.

In this case, the parties entered into their postnuptial agreement voluntarily, without undue influence, for valuable consideration and with full knowledge of the other’s assets. Therefore, the parties’ postnuptial agreement is valid and may be enforced according to contract principles. In fact, postnuptial and antenuptial agreements are favored by public policy and are, therefore, construed liberally to give effect to the intention of the parties.

A central tenet of contract construction is that the intent of the contracting parties at the time of executing their agreement should govern, and courts assume that the intent of the parties is that specifically expressed in the body of the contract.

As the Tennessee Supreme Court has explained:

We initially determine the parties’ intent by examining the plain and ordinary meaning of the written word that are “contained within the four corners of the contract.” The literal meaning of the contract language controls if the language is clear and unambiguous. However, if the terms are ambiguous in that they are “susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation,” we must apply other established rules of construction to aid in determining the contracting parties’ intent.

The widow in this case is asking for a portion of her husband’s wrongful death settlement. Proceeds from this action are not property of her husband’s estate, but they pass outside the estate through the operation of intestacy statutes.
The husband’s other heirs claim that the widow waived her right to collect from the wrongful death proceeds because the widow agreed to waive “all other rights which they may have acquired by reason of their marriage.” Appellees argued that the widow’s entitlement to any wrongful death proceeds was based on her marriage, and that right, therefore, was waived. The court agreed with this argument.

The court also noted that, in Tennessee, a surviving spouse’s right to collect the proceeds of a wrongful death action is not absolute and may be waived under appropriate circumstances. Furthermore, Tennessee courts have repeatedly held that a spouse can waive his or her statutory right to share in the deceased spouse’s estate. The court found no difference between a waiver of the statutory right to an elective share of the spouse’s estate and a waiver of the right to share in proceeds of a wrongful death action, so long as the waiver complies with the requirements of Bratton (explaining the contractual standards for antenuptial and postnuptial agreements) and the waiver of such right is clearly contemplated by the parties.

The widow in this case waived her right to share in the proceeds from the wrongful death action by waiving all other rights which they may have acquired by reason of their marriage. It is clear that the language in this agreement evidences an intent that the marriage have no effect on the spouse’s respective property and statutory rights by reason of marriage.

If you have questions about the terms of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, or if you need advice on your rights to a spouse’s estate, contact our office today to schedule your free consultation.

Rickman v. Rickman
Appeal from Chancery Court for Warren County
No. M2013-00251-COA-R3-CV
Filed October 15, 2013

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