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Acurio v. Acurio

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 3, 2017

DANIELLE DEON DICKERSON ACURIO
v.
DR. MICHAEL THOMAS ACURIO

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, SECOND CIRCUIT, PARISH OF BOSSIER

          CLARK, JUSTICE.

         We granted this writ application to resolve a split among the appellate courts of our state regarding the proper interpretation of La. Civ. Code art. 2331. Specifically, we are tasked with determining whether parties must duly acknowledge their signatures prior to the marriage in order for the matrimonial agreement to have legal effect. We find the acknowledgment of the signatures to be a form requirement, and the failure to meet all form requirements prior to the marriage renders the matrimonial agreement invalid. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeal and reinstate the district court judgment. We remand for proceedings consistent with this holding.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Danielle Deon Dickerson Acurio Cage, (hereinafter "the plaintiff"), and Dr. Michael Thomas Acurio, (hereinafter "the defendant"), married on June 27, 1998 for the first time. That marriage ended in divorce in 2000. On January 29, 2002, the parties married for a second time. Prior to this marriage, on January 25, 2002, the plaintiff and the defendant executed a document captioned "Prenuptial Agreement." The document was signed by the parties before one witness and a notary. It is undisputed that the agreement was not executed by authentic act. Also, the agreement did not contain an acknowledgment of the signature of either party.

         In 2009, divorce proceedings began. A judgment of divorce was signed and filed on October 6, 2010. Property issues were to be decided at a November 2015 trial. However, in July of 2015, the plaintiff filed a Motion in Limine to Exclude Evidence of Invalid Matrimonial Agreement, seeking to exclude the 2002 document for failure to comply with the form requirements of La. Civ. Code art. 2331.

         The district court granted the motion in limine, finding the matrimonial agreement was not executed by authentic act or act under private signature duly acknowledged prior to the marriage. Specifically, the district court noted "the first acknowledgment of [the signatures] was in the deposition of [the plaintiff] on July 8, 2010." Accordingly, it found the agreement was null and void "based upon the lack of form prior to the entering of the marriage." The defendant appealed.

         The Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the district court's judgment on the motion in limine, holding the Prenuptial Agreement was valid and enforceable because spouses do not have to acknowledge their signatures prior to marriage. Acurio v. Acurio, 50, 709 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/22/16), 197 So.3d 253. The plaintiff filed the instant writ application. We granted the writ to determine whether the acknowledgment of the parties' signatures must occur prior to the marriage in order for the matrimonial agreement to be valid. Acurio v. Acurio, 16-1395 (La. 12/16/16), _So.3d_.

         DISCUSSION

         Arguments of the Parties

         La. Civ. Code art. 2331 provides:

A matrimonial agreement may be executed by the spouses before or during marriage. It shall be made by authentic act or by an act under private signature duly acknowledged by the spouses.

         The plaintiff argues the spouses' signatures must be duly acknowledged prior to the marriage. In support of this argument, she contends La. Civ. Code art. 2331 must be read in conjunction with La. Civ. Code art. 2329, which provides, in pertinent part:

Spouses may enter into a matrimonial agreement that modifies or terminates a matrimonial regime during marriage only upon a joint petition and a finding by the court that this serves their best interests and that they understand the governing principles and rules.

         If spouses fail to enter into a valid matrimonial agreement before the marriage, La. Civ. Code art. 2329 requires them to jointly petition the court and obtain court approval to enter into a matrimonial agreement during marriage. According to the plaintiff's view, if the acknowledgment does not occur prior to the marriage, the agreement is not fully perfected and is, therefore, invalid. Thus, court approval would be required to enter into a matrimonial agreement post-nuptially. Reading these two articles jointly, as argued by the plaintiff, creates a temporal requirement for the acknowledgment to occur prior to the marriage.

         The majority of the appellate courts in this state have agreed with the plaintiff's position. See Ritz v. Ritz, 95-683 (La.App. 5 Cir. 12/13/95), 666 So.2d 1181 (wherein the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal invalidated a matrimonial agreement when the parties failed to duly acknowledge their signatures prior to the marriage); Deshotels v. Deshotels, 13-1406, p. 5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/5/14), 150 So.3d 541, 545 (wherein the Third Circuit Court of Appeal found a matrimonial agreement invalid "because the elements of form must have been perfected before the marriage" and a later "admission in court that [a spouse] signed the marriage agreement cannot act to retroactively resurrect the defective marriage agreement); Rush v. Rush, 12-1502 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/25/13), 115 So.3d 508 (wherein the First Circuit Court of Appeal held that the spouses had to get court approval for a matrimonial agreement if the spouses had not acknowledged their signatures prior to the marriage); Lauga v. Lauga, 537 So.2d 758 (La.App. 4 Cir. 1989)(wherein the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal invalidated a matrimonial agreement for the spouses' failure to acknowledge their signatures prior to the marriage).

         Conversely, the defendant contends the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in the instant case correctly ruled that acknowledgment has no temporal requirement and can occur at any time. Because La. Civ. Code art. 2331 does not expressly place a time element on acknowledgment, the defendant relies on the general law of obligations. Specifically, he cites to La. Civ. Code art. 1836, which states:

An act under private signature is regarded prima facie as the true and genuine act of a party executing it when his signature has been acknowledged, and the act shall be admitted in evidence without further proof.
An act under private signature may be acknowledged by a party to that act by recognizing the signature as his own before a court, or before a notary public, or other officer authorized to perform that function, in the presence of two witnesses. An act under private signature may be acknowledged also in any other manner authorized by law.
Nevertheless, an act under private signature, though acknowledged, cannot substitute for an authentic act when the law prescribes such an act.

         The defendant avers the validity of the private signature is a question of proof of the signatures by way of acknowledgment, which can be offered at any time. To support the notion that the acknowledgment is merely a matter of evidentiary proof and not an element of form, he sets forth La. Civ. Code art. 1838:

A party against whom an act under private signature is asserted must acknowledge his signature or deny that it is his. In case of denial, any means of proof may be used to establish that the signature belongs to that party.

         Analysis

         Against this backdrop of opposing viewpoints, we begin our analysis with some basic tenets of civilian law. "Laws on the same subject matter must be interpreted in reference to each other." La. Civ. Code art. 13. "All laws pertaining to the same subject matter must be interpreted in pari materia . . . ." Pierce Foundations, Inc. v. Jaroy Construction, Inc., 15-785, p. 7 (La. 5/3/16), 190 So.3d 298, 303. The legal regime of community property is presumed. La. Civ. Code art. 2340. In light of this presumption and the strong legislative policy favoring community rights, we interpret statutory provisions which waive those rights stricti juris. (See e.g. Rush, 115 So.3d at 512; Poirier v. Poirier, 626 So.2d 868, 870 (La.App. 3 Cir. 1993), writ denied, 94-161 (La. 3/11/94), 634 So.2d 389.

         We note the defendant's argument is primarily grounded in the apparent absence of a temporal requirement for acknowledgment in La. Civ. Code art. 2331. The defendant then navigates to the general rules of obligations to reach the conclusion that acknowledgment of a party's signature is simply an evidentiary matter that can be proven at any time. However, we find such a departure from the applicable rules on matrimonial agreements to be erroneous. La. Civ. Code art. 1916 specifically instructs, "[n]ominate contracts are subject to the special rules of the respective titles when those rules modify, complement, or depart from the rules of this title [conventional obligations or contracts]." For the reasons that follow, we find the collective ...


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