A premarital agreement entered into by a pregnant teenage girl and her future husband who was twice her age was unconscionable when the agreement was executed in 1995, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday in an issue of first impression.
Julie Fetters filed for divorce from Jay Fetters in 2011 after 15 years of marriage. The two met when Julie Fetters was 14 and Jay Fetters was 29. She became pregnant at age 15 and in an attempt to circumvent criminal charges, Jay Fetters asked Julie Fetters to marry him. He also asked her to sign a premarital agreement prepared by his attorney that stated each party would retain their own separate property in the event of the divorce.
Julie Fetters and her mother went to the attorney’s office to sign the agreement. She signed it despite a lack of education and not understanding the agreement. She dropped out of school and eventually worked as a nurses’ aide. Jay Fetters continued to work as a school janitor and has a PERF pension. She has two vehicles in her name and he has the marital home, two vehicles and one motorcycle in his name.
The trial court divided property in accordance to the prenuptial agreement, denying Julie Fetters’ request to invalidate it. She was only awarded her two vehicles in the divorce.
The case, Julie M. Fetters v. Jay M. Fetters, 68A01-1404-DR-167, required the Indiana Court of Appeals to look at the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act that went into effect July 1, 1995. No reported Indiana decision has interpreted the act since its adoption and there apparently are no other cases remotely similar to this one in Indiana or elsewhere. The Act says the agreement is not enforceable if the party did not execute the agreement voluntarily or the agreement was unconscionable when the agreement was executed.
The appeals court found the second reason applicable in this case. Julie Fetters was a minor when she executed the agreement, was not highly educated and did not understand the agreement. She was not represented by legal counsel and her mother also seemed to not understand the agreement, Judge Michael Barnes wrote. Jay Fetters benefited greatly from the agreement, as he got to keep his assets and avoid criminal prosecution whereas Julie Fetters ended up dropping out of school and working at low-wage jobs. She also brought no assets into the marriage.
The COA also held the trial judge erred when he concluded that she was time-barred from challenging the agreement because she did not attempt to invalidate it for 15 years.
“We believe it is clear from the statutory language, along with the caselaw definitions of laches and estoppel, that the mere fact that Julie stayed married to Jay from approximately fifteen years and did not attempt to disavow the premarital agreement before she filed for divorce is not a bar to her disavowal. Rather, there must at least be some evidence or proof of Jay’s detrimental reliance on Julie’s failure to disavow the agreement, and there is none in this case,” Barnes wrote. The case is remanded for further proceedings.