Master Finds that Doctrine of Laches Precludes Challenge to Prenuptial Agreement

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted November 11, 2022

In the Matter of the Estate of Lawrence M. Sullivan, Sr., Deceased, C.A. No. 2020-0318-SEM (October 31, 2022)

            In this case, Lawrence M. Sullivan and his wife, Catherine, entered into a prenuptial agreement (the “Agreement”) prior to their wedding in August 19, 1988. The Agreement stated, among other things, that Catherine:                       

                         “does hereby waive, release and relinquish all her right, title, estate and                                                                    interest, statutory or otherwise, including but not limited to, dower                                                                              (inchoate or consummate) homestead, exempt property, family allowance,                                                              community property, statutory allowance, distribution in intestacy and                                                                       right of election to take against the Will of Lawrence which may be now or                                                               hereafter provided for under the law of Delaware, or any other state,                                                                       county or jurisdiction.”

            Prior to signing the Agreement, Catherine was represented by separate counsel. After reviewing the Agreement, counsel advised Catherine not to sign, and doing so would be against the advice of counsel. Catherine acknowledges counsel’s advice and stated that she “understand you don’t approve and will not represent me in any matter pertaining to the signed [A]greement.” Despite the advice of counsel and her acknowledgement of such advice, Catherine signed the Agreement.

            Catherine and Lawrence were married until his death in September of 2019 and the prenuptial agreement remained in place. Following his death, Lawrence’s estate was governed by his Last Will and Testament (the “Will”). The Will named Lawrence’s children (the “Respondents”) as the executors, and provided that the residuary of the estate was to be distributed to a revocable trust created by Lawrence.

            Catherine filed a petition for an elective share of Lawrence’s estate. Respondents opposed the petition, asserting that Catherine “[was] precluded from asserting her claim and seeking the relief demanded because she executed” the Agreement, and waived her right to claim an elective share of the estate.

            Respondents filed a motion for summary judgement. Under Court of Chancery Rule 56, summary judgement will be granted if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and … the moving party is entitled to a judgement as a matter of law.” Further, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and the moving party has the burden of demonstrating that there is no material question of fact.

            Respondents argued that (i) the Agreement barred Catherine’s claim for an elective share, and Catherine was barred by laches from challenging the Agreement, or (ii) that Catherine was not entitled to an elective share because the value of her inheritance was greater than the elective share.

            For a prenuptial agreement to be binding it must be both procedurally and substantively fair. A prenuptial agreement is not fair if:

                         “it fails to satisfy any one of the following requirements: (1) each spouse                                                                    has made a fair and reasonable disclosure to the other of his or her                                                                            financial status; (2) each spouse has entered into the agreement voluntarily                                                              and freely; and (3) the substantive provisions of the agreement dividing the                                                               property upon divorce are fair to each spouse at the time of the execution                                                                of the agreement and, if circumstances significantly changed since                                                                            the agreement, then also at the time of the divorce.”[1]

            Catherine argued that there were questions of material fact as to whether the Agreement met the procedural and substantive fairness tests. Catherine stated that she was pressured and deceived when signing the Agreement by Lawrence “who told [her] that the Agreement would protect [her], and who [she] trusted because he was [her] fiancé and more importantly because he was a Delaware attorney and she therefore relied on his knowledge of the law and his advice regarding the … Agreement.”

            The Court, however, did not reach Respondents’ second argument nor Catherine’s fairness argument because it found that the challenge was barred by the equitable doctrine of laches. While there is no statute of limitations for equitable claims, the court will apply laches if an analogous statute of limitations has expired. The question before the Court was when the limitations period should begin to run. The Uniform Premarital Agreement Act (“UPAA”) tolls the statute of limitations for challenging a premarital agreement for the length of the marriage. However the Court found that UPAA did not apply here, reasoning that comment 8 to UPAA provides that “a party is not completely free to sit on his or her rights because the section does preserve certain equitable defenses.” Further, the UPAA is not retroactive, and Catherine failed to show extraordinary circumstances that warranted its application. Catherine however argued that 12 Del. C. § 901 should toll the statute of limitations because the right of election does not arise until a spouse’s death, therefore her claim could not begin to accrue until Lawrence’s death.

            The Court disagreed with Catherine’s arguments, reasoning that at any time during the marriage, Catherine could have challenged the Agreement. Catherine was aware of the perceived unfairness at the time of execution of the Agreement due to the advice of counsel. The Court also reasoned that, due to the length of time that had passed since execution, over thirty years, it was unfair to litigate the accuracy of an agreement entered into so long ago, where “evidence surrounding the execution of the [Agreement] is stale.”

            Finally, the Court found that Catherine’s delay in challenging the Agreement was not harmless because it was likely that Lawrence relied on the Agreement’s enforceability in his estate planning.

            Because the Court found that Catherine was barred from challenging the Agreement by laches, the Respondents summary judgement motion was granted.


[1] Coulbourn v. Lambert, 1996 WL 860586, at *7 (Del. Fam. Ct. Dec. 19, 1996)


David T. White – Attorney