Beating a prenup? Can't be done.
That was the prevailing wisdom in New York state until the estranged wife of a Long Island millionaire successfully argued she was the victim of a fraud.
Elizabeth Petrakis contended that when her husband Peter Petrakis reneged on a promise to tear up their prenuptial agreement once she had children (she now has two sons and a daughter), the prenup was no longer valid.
An appeals court in Brooklyn agreed with her last month, although her husband's promise was never part of the couple's formal prenup.
The prenup called for her to get $25,000 a year. Now Elizabeth Petrakis plans to seek half of her estranged husband's fortune of an estimated $20 million. And divorce lawyers are wondering whether the ruling is precedent-setting or merely a singular decision based on the specific facts of a broken promise in the Petrakis case.
"I think it has huge implications," Manhattan attorney Marilyn Chinitz, whose clients have included actors Michael Douglas and Tom Cruise, said Tuesday. "It is a total game-changer that opens up the floodgates of litigation. The whole purpose of the prenup was to avoid having a hearing over who said what."
Nancy Chemtob, who represented Diandra Douglas, agreed on this point with her adversary in the Douglas case.
"I think it's going to be quoted in every single case going forward," she said. "Anyone trying to set aside a prenup is going to cite this case. It gives us more teeth as to why other factors should be considered."
Attorney Dennis D'Antonio, a commercial contract litigator and not a divorce lawyer, said he argued the case for Elizabeth Petrakis before the state appellate division as a contract case.
Elizabeth Petrakis contended she only signed the prenuptial agreement four days before her 1998 wedding after three months of cajoling. She said she relented when Peter Petrakis agreed the deal would be voided once she had children. That stipulation was never part of the formal agreement.
An attorney representing Peter Petrakis, an Old Brookville real estate developer, did not return a telephone call Tuesday seeking comment.
"We applied old-fashioned contract law," D'Antonio said, arguing that the inducement to void the prenuptial agreement once she had children exerted undo pressure on Elizabeth Petrakis to sign. The ruling was initially made in 2011 by a state Supreme Court judge in Nassau County and upheld by an appeals court in Brooklyn in February.
"The matrimonial bar tends to do things the way they always did, and they approached the prenup as something you can't challenge," D'Antonio said.
Raoul Felder, a Manhattan divorce lawyer who has represented many high-profile clients, said he has never seen a prenuptial agreement voided by the court.
"This ruling is making a lot of husbands sleep nervously," Felder said.
Nevertheless, he predicted that if agreements are drawn up properly, few will end up being overturned in the courts.
"Most lawyers are very careful; a good prenup will last," Felder said.
James Joseph, who represented Patricia Duff in a child support case against Revlon Inc. Chairman Ronald Perelman, wasn't so sure the case would become a precedent.
"It appears the appellate division tried very hard not to create bad law," Joseph said. "I think they emphasized that the plaintiff was more credible and convincing."
Elizabeth Petrakis, 39, said she plans to commence a divorce proceeding now that the prenuptial decision has been settled.
"This prenup has been a thorn in my heart ever since Day 1," she said. "I think without being forced to sign a prenup I'd still be married. I am sure to this day he has regretted ever asking me to sign this."