By Katy Barnett
In Thorne v Kennedy, the High Court unanimously struck down both a prenuptial and a postnuptial agreement (the plurality on the basis of undue influence and unconscionable conduct, and Nettle J and Gordon J on the basis of unconscionable conduct alone). The agreements had been entered into by a impoverished 36-year-old woman from overseas (known by the pseudonym ‘Ms Thorne’) who married a 67-year-old wealthy Australian property developer (known by the pseudonym ‘Mr Kennedy’). Prior to and after the wedding, Ms Thorne agreed that she would have very little claim on Mr Kennedy’s assets (worth between $18 million and $24 million) if her relationship with her husband broke down because he wanted his money to be kept for his three children from his first marriage. Ms Thorne’s English was poor; she had no assets; she was desperate to have a child; her Australian visa was about to expire, and she would not be able to get a new visa without her marriage; and Mr Kennedy asked her to sign the prenuptial agreement four days before the wedding, when all her family had come to Australia from her home country to attend. She was told that if she did not sign the wedding would not go ahead and the relationship would end, and so she signed the agreement. This was despite the fact that the independent solicitor whom Mr Kennedy arranged to advise Ms Thorne implored her not to sign it and pronounced it the worst agreement she had ever seen. Pursuant to the prenuptial agreement, Ms Thorne was obliged to sign a postnuptial agreement in the same terms, which she did, although the independent solicitor again advised her not to. Ms Thorne and Mr Kennedy divorced just under four years later.
Some have argued that this signals the death-knell to ‘binding financial agreements’ under pt VIIIA of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (eg, here) because there will almost never be equality between partners, whereas others (eg, here and here) argue that binding financial agreements will still be viable, but care must be taken with the circumstances of entry into such agreements. Continue reading