Bates v. Bates

Citation345 So.3d 328
Decision Date03 February 2021
Docket Number3D19-1884
Parties Paul Evan BATES, Appellant, v. Magda Jhovanna BATES, Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)

Ross & Girten, and Lauri Waldman Ross, Miami, for appellant.

Law Office of Jack Bridges, P.A., and James R. (Jack) Bridges, Key Largo, for appellee.



In this marital dissolution action, Paul Evan Bates appeals an August 30, 2019 non-final order finding the parties’ prenuptial agreement invalid because it was the product of duress and coercion. We have jurisdiction. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.130(a)(3)(C)(iii) c. ("Appeals to the district courts of appeal of nonfinal orders are limited to those that ... determine ... in family law matters ... that a marital agreement is invalid in its entirety[.]"). Concluding that the trial court's findings as to coercion are supported by competent, substantial evidence, we affirm.1


On May 29, 2001, Paul Evan Bates ("Husband") and Magda Jhovanna Bates ("Wife") met in Cali, Colombia through a matchmaking website called Latin Connection. At the time, Husband was a divorced, forty-one-year-old commercial airline pilot with a net worth of approximately $4 million. Husband was looking for a "Christian based woman of child-bearing age" to marry, bring to the Florida Keys and start a family. Wife, who was a virgin and had never been married, turned eighteen years old just three days prior to meeting Husband. She had the equivalent of a high school education and was in her second year of medical school in Colombia. Wife was looking for a wealthy American man to marry and to bring her to the United States.

The parties’ courtship was far from ordinary. Because Husband did not speak Spanish and Wife spoke little English, Husband used a translator during the parties’ initial meetings. A chaperone accompanied the parties on their dates, which occurred when Husband had layovers on flights to Cali. To breach the language barrier, Husband used a handheld translator and translation programs on a laptop.

In June 2001, during an unchaperoned trip to Cartagena, Colombia, the parties had sex and became engaged the same day. When Wife later learned that she was pregnant, Husband paid for her to have an abortion in mid-August 2001, shortly before the parties married on August 31, 2001. Wife's family was unaware of her premarital sex, pregnancy and abortion.

A. The prenuptial agreement and the parties’ marriage

During their whirlwind courtship, Husband told Wife that he wanted her to sign a prenuptial agreement. Husband obtained a form prenuptial agreement from a co-pilot acquaintance and modified the agreement to Husband's satisfaction. The parties never discussed the prenuptial agreement or negotiated any of its terms.

In late August 2001, Wife took the prenuptial agreement to a Colombian attorney, Alba Mielan Ceballos De Lince ("Attorney Ceballos"), to have the agreement translated from English into Spanish. On August 29, 2001, Attorney Ceballos provided Wife with the Spanish translation of the prenuptial agreement. Despite Attorney Ceballos signing a certification in the agreement attesting that she was knowledgeable in Florida law and had advised Wife about her rights under the subject agreement, Attorney Ceballos now admits that she does not know Florida law and that she did nothing more than have the agreement translated into Spanish by a third party.

The next day, August 30, 2001, the parties executed the English and Spanish versions of the prenuptial agreement before a notary public. Wife did not read the agreement before signing it. On August 31, 2001, the parties were married in a civil ceremony at Wife's home that was attended by a small group of family and friends, followed by a catered meal and live entertainment.

Several days following the civil ceremony, the parties went to a previously scheduled appointment at the Colombian embassy to start Wife's emigration process.

In December 2001, the parties had a religious ceremony performed in a Catholic church in Colombia. The reason for the delay between the civil and religious ceremonies was two-fold. First, as a divorced, non-denominational Christian, Husband, in order to be married in the Catholic church, needed to perform various steps to obtain approval from the Colombian archdiocese. This process took months to accomplish. Second, not wanting to delay the emigration process, the parties had the civil ceremony first, at Wife's request.

Thereafter, with the emigration process completed and the religious ceremony performed, Wife moved to the Florida Keys to live with Husband, where Husband resided and owned businesses. The parties had five children during the course of their marriage.

B. The verified petition for dissolution of marriage

In May 2017, Wife filed a verified petition for dissolution of marriage with minor children in the Monroe County Circuit Court. Therein, Wife sought to set aside the prenuptial agreement "on the grounds that it was reached under fraud, deceit, duress, coercion, misrepresentation or overreaching." Among other things, the pleading alleged that the prenuptial agreement had been "executed involuntarily as a result of the timing of the Agreement." As a separate basis for invalidating the prenuptial agreement, the verified petition asserted that "[t]he provisions for the Wife in the Agreement are grossly inequitable."

C. The trial on the validity of the prenuptial agreement

The trial court held a bench trial on the validity of the prenuptial agreement on March 12, 15, 19 and June 10, 2019. The court heard live testimony from three witnesses: Wife, Husband, and a former employee of one of Husband's businesses. The parties also introduced the deposition testimony of Wife, Husband and Attorney Ceballos.3

Consistent with her deposition testimony, Wife testified that she was a virgin prior to her June 2001 trip to Cartagena with Husband; that she became pregnant from having sex with Husband; that Husband paid for her to have an abortion in mid-August 2001; and that she was raised in a strict Catholic household that did not approve of premarital sex or abortion. Further, Wife was in severe pain and distress related to the abortion both on August 29, 2001, when she retrieved the Spanish translation of the prenuptial agreement from Attorney Ceballos, and on August 30, 2001, when she executed the prenuptial agreement before a notary. According to Wife, "[t]he only reason it didn't get signed on the 29th is because I could barely walk. I was bleeding. I was bleeding ... [a]nd in pain."

Wife further testified that when Husband first presented her with the English version of the prenuptial agreement in late August 2001, Husband told her repeatedly that signing the prenuptial agreement "was a requirement" for Wife to immigrate to the United States. In particular, Wife testified that, "he told me before I had the appointment [with the Colombian embassy] and in order for [me] to come to the States you have to sign this."

On cross-examination, Wife agreed that she would have signed anything that Husband had given her to sign because Wife loved and wanted to marry Husband, and because Wife wanted to immigrate to the United States.

D. The non-final order invalidating the prenuptial agreement

On August 30, 2019, the trial court entered a non-final order invalidating the parties’ prenuptial agreement because it "was the product of duress and coercion." As to "coercion" the trial court held:

15. Mrs. Bates was in a vulnerable emotional position at the time of executing the prenuptial agreement. She had endured an abortion only a couple of weeks before the legal wedding was scheduled. Mrs. Bates had already scheduled an appointment with immigration set for a date shortly after the legal wedding. The demand to sign the translated prenuptial agreement the day before the wedding or the consequences would be no wedding and no immigration, is clear coercion .

(Emphasis added). As to "duress" the trial court held:

19. The fact that Mrs. Bates would have signed anything to marry Mr. Bates appears to benefit Mr. Bates’ argument that the agreement was executed freely and voluntarily. However, it can conversely be used to show the disparity of the parties’ bargaining positions. Mrs. Bates came from a strict Catholic family. Mr. Bates testified that she had to be home at a certain hour or her mother would throw all her clothes out into the alley. Mrs. Bates was desperate to marry Mr. Bates and come to the United States. She had given her virginity to Mr. Bates, got pregnant, [and] had an abortion, all while supposedly expertly negotiating the terms of the prenuptial agreement.4 These circumstances coupled with the fact that Mrs. Bates came from a strict Catholic family that would not condone having sex prior to the wedding day (not to mention what her family would have done had they known of the abortion), added more emotional stress and duress to Mrs. Bates during that time.

(Emphasis added). Husband timely appealed this August 30, 2019 non-final order.


We review the trial court's invalidation of the subject prenuptial agreement for competent, substantial evidence. See Ziegler v. Natera, 279 So. 3d 1240, 1242 (Fla. 3d DCA 2019). "[T]he findings of the trial court come to this court clothed with a presumption of correctness[,] and will not be disturbed absent a showing that there was no competent evidence to sustain them." Id. (quoting Baker v. Baker, 394 So. 2d 465, 466 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981) ). Accordingly, "[w]e take the facts most favorably in support of the trial court's decision." Waton v. Waton, 887 So. 2d 419, 422 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004).


There are two distinct grounds for invalidating a prenuptial agreement: (1) where the defending spouse has engaged in "fraud, deceit, duress, coercion, misrepresentation, or overreaching"; and (2) where...

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