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Kipnis v. Kipnis

December 18, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Graffeo, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

The principal issue in this matrimonial case is whether the parties' foreign prenuptial agreement precludes the equitable distribution of certain property under New York law. Like the courts below, we conclude that it does.

Plaintiff Claire Van Kipnis (wife) and defendant Gregory Van Kipnis (husband) were married in Paris, France in 1965. At the time of the parties' marriage, wife was a Canadian citizen from Quebec studying at the Sorbonne and husband was a citizen of the United States, having recently completed college. Prior to the marriage ceremony, wife had a "Contrat de Mariage" drafted under the French Civil Code and arranged for legal counsel to explain the terms of the prenuptial agreement in English to husband. The agreement was executed by the parties on September 30, 1965.

Under the provisions of the Contrat de Mariage, the parties opted out of the community property scheme (the governing custom in France) in favor of a separation of estates regime. In relevant part, the agreement provides:

"The future spouses declare that they are adopting the marital property system of separation of estates, as established by the French Civil Code.

"Consequently, each spouse shall retain ownership and possession of the chattels and real property that he/she may own at this time or may come to own subsequently by any means whatsoever.

"They shall not be liable for each other's debts established before or during the marriage or encumbering the inheritances and gifts that they receive.

"The wife shall have all the rights and powers over her assets accorded by law to women married under the separate-estates system without any restriction."

After the wedding, the parties moved to New York where they resided during their 38-year marriage. Husband was employed in finance while wife worked as a professor at Cooper Union and later as a cultural counselor for the Quebec government. Wife was also the primary caretaker of the parties' two children, now emancipated. Throughout their marriage, the parties maintained separate accounts and assets, with the exception of the joint ownership of their two homes a $625,000 house in Massachusetts and a cooperative apartment in Manhattan valued at $1,825,000.

In 2002, wife commenced this action for divorce and ancillary relief*fn1. Following discovery, but before trial, Supreme Court granted husband's motion to amend his answer to assert the 1965 prenuptial agreement as a defense to wife's equitable distribution claims. After the Appellate Division affirmed the order permitting the amendment, Supreme Court appointed a Special Referee to conduct a hearing on the issues of equitable distribution, maintenance and counsel fees.

The Referee determined that the French contract provided for the separate ownership of assets held in the parties' respective names during the course of the marriage. As a result, husband retained his liquid assets of approximately $7 million and wife kept her assets ranging from $700,000 to $800,000. But as to the jointly held properties, which the parties agreed were subject to equitable distribution, the Referee recommended that wife be awarded the Manhattan apartment, together with $75,000 in reimbursement for repairs, and husband be awarded the country home in Massachusetts. After reviewing the statutory factors related to maintenance, the Referee proposed that wife receive $7,500 per month in maintenance until either husband or wife dies or wife remarries. Finally, the Referee concluded that legal fees expended in connection with wife's challenge to the prenuptial agreement were not compensable under Domestic Relations Law § 237. After deducting that portion of wife's claim for counsel fees attributable to contesting the agreement, the Referee awarded wife $92,779.57 in attorneys' fees. Supreme Court confirmed the Referee's report. The Appellate Division, with one Justice dissenting, affirmed, and we granted wife leave to appeal.

Wife contends that all of the parties' property should be subject to equitable distribution under Domestic Relations Law § 236 (B) (5). She asserts that the 1965 agreement, drafted and executed in France, was intended to apply to property ownership during the course of the marriage, but not to the distribution of property in the event of a divorce. In her view, the primary purpose of the agreement was for each spouse to avoid liability for the other's debts. Relatedly, wife posits that a prenuptial agreement cannot waive a party's right to equitable distribution under the Domestic Relations Law absent an explicit waiver. Husband counters that the agreement unambiguously provides that the parties shall retain their property separately throughout their marriage and, as a result, all property not held in joint names must be treated as separate property and excluded from equitable distribution.

It is well settled that duly executed prenuptial agreements are generally valid and enforceable given the "strong public policy favoring individuals ordering and deciding their own interests through contractual arrangements" (Bloomfield v Bloomfield, 97 NY2d 188, 193 [2001] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). As with all contracts, prenuptial agreements are construed in accord with the parties' intent, which is generally gleaned from what is expressed in their writing. Consequently, "a written agreement that is complete, clear and unambiguous on its face must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms" (Greenfield v ...

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