The news broke recently that the divorce proceeding between Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco and professional tennis player Ryan Sweeting just became a great deal more complicated than originally reported.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Cuoco recently was named as Forbes’ highest paid TV actress for 2015 (in a tie with Sofia Vergara), with $28.5 million in earnings, including an impressive payday of one million dollars per episode. Comparatively, Sweeting — who boasts only one career tournament win and has been battling injuries — has an estimated net worth of only two million dollars, about $42 million less than Cuoco’s reported net worth.
So why should anyone be surprised that the spouse worth less is asking for financial support from the big bread winner?
Kaley Cuoco played a smart game from the start. Even though she and Ryan Sweeting were married after only six months of dating, Cuoco and Sweeting had a prenuptial agreement, signed on November 20, 2013 — more than a month before their wedding on December 31, 2013. With a good prenup in place, a drawn-out match over financial issues like spousal support can be largely avoided.
Note the important qualifier here — “largely” avoided is not “completely” avoided. The existence of a prenuptial agreement does not end the match. It certainly gives Cuoco a big lead in the battle over spousal support though.
Kaley Cuoco filed for divorce on September 25, 2015, stating in her divorce petition that the prenuptial agreement controlled spousal support and how their assets would be divided. Sweeting argues for a different approach, asking for Cuoco to pay him spousal support, terminating any rights of Cuoco to seek support from him, as well as asking for Cuoco to pay his attorney fees. The attorney fee request particularly raises a red flag, since Cuoco’s divorce filing states that the prenuptial agreement calls for each side to pay their own lawyer bills for the divorce.
How will this all shake out? It could get complicated. First, it’s up to Kaley Cuoco and her lawyers to prove that Ryan Sweeting was represented by an independent attorney when the prenup was signed and that it would not be “unconscionable” to enforce the agreement based on the current circumstances. Sweeting could also try to avoid the prenuptial agreement if he can prove that he did not voluntarily sign it (meaning he was coerced into it, which would be hard for him to prove), that he wasn’t provided with a seven-day “waiting period” before singing it, or that he was not given full disclosure of Cuoco’s assets when he signed it.
Chances are high, given the amount of money at stake, that the “i’s” were dotted and the “t’s” crossed, meaning that full disclosures were made and Sweeting had his own attorney at the time, as well as sufficient time to sign it. It's likely that Cuoco can win those volleys, with ease.
The harder question, however, is whether Sweeting can garner enough points with the argument that it would be “unconscionable” to enforce the prenup against him based on his present circumstances. What does the word “unconscionable” mean exactly? California courts haven’t definitively answered that question in battles over prenups, but essentially, it is a question of whether it would be very unfair to enforce the agreement. Using courts from other states for guidance, it is likely that this will come down to whether the spouse trying to escape the prenuptial agreement would be deprived of a reasonable source of adequate support without spousal support.
In other words, Ryan Sweeting could argue that his various injuries have prevented him from earning a living as a tennis player. He could toss in the point that his injuries — not to mention his reported addiction to pain killers — arose during the marriage, meaning he cannot reasonably support himself now, and he needs help. Sweeting’s attorneys could contend that this is a different set of circumstances than when the prenuptial agreement was signed, so it would be very unfair to enforce it.
If the judge assigned to the case accepts these arguments, then Sweeting would likely receive spousal support from Cuoco, depending on how much he needs to support himself. But, even in that case, the support would likely be short-lived, since the couple was only married for about 21 months. Courts often follow a general guideline of one-half the duration of the marriage (for shorter marriages at least) for spousal support, when there is no enforceable prenuptial agreement. So, realistically, Cuoco would only have to support Sweeting for a year or so, even if he prevails in convincing the court to ignore the prenup.
Will the pair engage in a lengthy match over the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement? Or will they settle out of court to avoid the expensive legal fees — and negative publicity — that such a fight can entail? Only time will tell, but the odds certainly favor a quiet settlement.
Kaley Cuoco and Ryan Sweeting provide a valuable lesson for anyone entering into a marriage with assets. Prenuptial agreements are very important, but they must be prepared the correct way, by experienced attorneys who know how to comply with the laws of that particular state.
However, couples going down that road should be aware that, at least in some states, prenuptial agreements are not always iron-clad. When financial circumstances change dramatically after the prenuptial agreement is signed, there is at least the possibility of spousal support — and even division of the assets — being awarded in a different fashion than what the agreement states.
Most importantly for couples seeking legal help with prenuptial agreements, if the attorney doesn’t do his or her job correctly, the prenup may not help at all. Hiring the right lawyers — one for each spouse — is critically important when it’s time for the prenup.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at Contact@TrialAndHeirs.com.