LONDON — An appeals court judge strengthened the status of prenuptial contracts in British law Thursday by ruling that a German heiress' premarital agreement with her former husband should influence how their assets are divided.
British law does not generally recognize prenuptial contracts. But Lord Justice Mathew Thorpe, who heard the case of Katrin Radmacher and her former husband Nicolas Granatino, said the current low status of prenuptial agreements "reflects the laws and morals of earlier generations."
"It does not sufficiently recognize the rights of autonomous adults to govern their future financial relationship by agreement in an age when marriage is not generally regarded as a sacrament and divorce is a statistical commonplace," he said.
Thorpe overturned an earlier court ruling that had ordered Radmacher to pay Granatino 5.85 million pounds ($9.6 million).
Instead, the judge awarded the ex-husband a lump sum of about 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) in place of maintenance and a 2.5 million pound ($3.6 million) loan for a house that will be returned when the youngest of their two daughters, who is now 6, turns 22.
Radmacher, 39, also agreed to pay off 700,000 pounds ($1.15 million) of 37-year-old Granatino's debts.
Radmacher, who has a fortune of at least 55 million pounds, married Granatino, a Frenchman, in 1998. The couple separated in 2006.
Their prenuptial agreement specified that Granatino should not get any of Radmacher's fortune if they divorced. It would have been enforceable in Germany, where it was signed. But the couple divorced in Britain, where courts generally have refused to enforce such agreements.
Thorpe said in his ruling that Britain is "in danger of isolation in the wider common law world if we do not give greater force and effect to ante-nuptial contracts."
When the case first went to court last year, Radmacher relied on the prenuptial agreement. She argued that her former husband had earned a high salary as a banker and could easily support himself.
But he quit his job in 2003 to pursue a doctorate in biotechnology at Oxford University.
The trial judge, Florence Baron, ruled in the ex-husband's favor because Granatino had not had independent legal advice, the marriage produced two children, and it would be unfair to rule out support for the ex-husband if he was genuinely in need.
Radmacher said in a statement Thursday that the case was about "what I regard as a broken promise."
"When we met and married, Nicolas and I were broadly on an equal footing financially. He, too, is an heir to a multimillion-pound fortune and, when we met, was an investment banker earning up to 330,000 pounds ($520,000) a year," she said. "The agreement was at my father's insistence as he wanted to protect my inheritance. This is perfectly normal in our countries of origin, France and Germany."
She added that the settlement would ensure that their daughters live comfortably when they reside with Granatino.
Britain's Law Commission is currently reviewing the status of prenuptial agreements, but it will not draw up any conclusions for at least three years.