When celebrity chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay and “Law & Order: SVU” star Stephanie March wed in 2005, they negotiated a prenup ahead of time, as many couples do. The purpose of a prenuptial agreement is to establish rules for property distribution and spousal support in the event that the marriage fails, and many prenups will include penalties for misconduct like infidelity.
In most cases, a properly negotiated prenuptial agreement, entered into by two fully informed parties, is enforceable and will be the governing document in the event of a divorce. However, when Flay filed for divorce in April of 2015, March immediately rejected the terms of their prenup, and the case got very nasty, very fast.
The marriage had been struggling for some time, but friends report that the couple loved each other and wanted to find a path forward together. Flay went so far as to fly to Amsterdam to surprise March while she was traveling in Europe over the holidays.
They agreed to try counseling early in 2015, and met with a therapist to try to work through their differences.
It’s not clear how much progress was being made. In February, Flay, the star of Throwdown with Bobby Flay and owner of restaurants including Mesa Grill and Midtown’s Bar Americain, skipped out on the couple’s anniversary and headed to Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
He did not go alone. Among the issues that Flay and March were working through in therapy was an allegation of infidelity, which Flay had publicly denied. There were rumors that Flay was having an affair with one of his assistants, who accompanied him to South Beach as part of his team.
According to media reports, his absence during their anniversary, and his alleged girlfriend’s presence on the trip, spelled the end for the marriage. Flay spent the next five weeks in Los Angeles filming, returning to New York in March.
Under the terms of the prenuptial agreement the couple had signed ten years earlier, Flay was obligated to pay $5,000 a month in spousal maintenance and make a $1 million buyout of March’s share of their $7 million home.
He sent a check for the spousal maintenance payment, and was likely very surprised when it was returned to him, with a letter from March’s attorney, Deborah Lans. Lans described the contract as unenforceable, kicking off a very public legal process that lasted for months.
By mid-April, Flay himself was in court demanding that the prenup be upheld. March asserted that the contract was “unconscionable” because she had played an integral role in the success of Flay’s endeavors and increased wealth, estimated to be around $20 million.
In court filings, March claimed that she had acted as Flay’s taste tester as he developed new recipes, designed his restaurants, and even urged him to include tapas on his menus when the couple visited Spain.
Over the next few months, the action took on a life of its own, with tabloids covering allegations like Flay pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings from a horse he purchased for March.
At one hearing in May, Flay arrived at court with a publicist, despite judge’s orders not to discuss the case with the media. March and her legal team expressed loud disapproval outside the courthouse, which turned into fodder for Page Six.
When Flay attended the installation ceremony for his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in June, a small airplane circled overhead pulling a banner that said, “Cheater.” March denies having funded the stunt, but it was widely viewed as a commentary on Flay’s extracurricular activities, and fed still more tabloid exposure.
Even with the conflict, negotiations were proceeding between the parties. Early on, Flay offered to increase the spousal maintenance payment above the $5,000 amount mandated in the prenup, but that offer was rejected.
Eventually, the options available were to take the divorce to trial, which would have resulted in additional bad press, or for Flay to choose to disregard the prenuptial agreement and come up with a divorce settlement from scratch. And that’s what he ultimately did.
While the terms of the settlement were private, some details emerged. Flay kept a Hamptons estate and the couple’s Manhattan apartment, while March secured a much more generous financial settlement than the original agreement allowed.
This was a bitter divorce, to be sure, and one party appears to have made good use of the media in creating leverage for negotiations. Had the matter gone before a judge, it’s entirely possible that the prenup would have been enforced, but Flay likely felt that preserving his reputation and brand was worth more than what he might lose by fighting for the prenup.
March’s legal team deserves real credit for pushing the issue and getting their client a better outcome than she might have expected. Attorneys have an obligation to vigorously represent their clients, and it sounds like creative strategies were employed to achieve a positive resolution.
As to the larger issue, a judge will almost always err on the side of a prenuptial agreement, assuming basic tenets are met. The parties should be represented by independent counsel, for instance, and the terms of the agreement must provide something for each side.
Prenuptial agreements do not have to be especially balanced or fair to be upheld, as long as it can be shown that the party had a clear understanding of the contract when they signed it.
At Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino, we help clients develop thorough, enforceable, reliable prenuptial and postnuptial contracts. It’s important to take steps to protect yourself in a hazardous world, and a prenup or postnup can play a role similar to an insurance policy.
Hopefully you never need to use it, but if so, a preexisting framework can save you time, frustration, and money. Call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with the experienced Queens prenuptial and postnuptial agreement team.