The win, say matrimonial law experts, is huge.
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“This is unprecedented in the family law world,” celebrity divorce lawyer Vikki Ziegler told Yahoo! Shine. “This is a landmark decision that will likely be litigated a great deal in the future in similar cases for those who feel their prenups are unconscionable.”
So how did it happen?
“I won it because I pretty much did it myself,” Cioffi-Petrakis told Yahoo! Shine. “I had three prior attorneys who messed up my case big-time. And I was pretty much dead in the water until I got educated.”
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To win the case, Cioffi-Petrakis had to prove in a Long Island court that her husband, commercial property developer Peter Petrakis, coerced her into signing the prenup. She claims he dropped the premarital bomb four days before their wedding day in 1998, leaving her with little time for a contractual dispute. She also told the court the agreement included promises her ex never intended to keep. Among those promises, she said, was that he would add her name to the deed of their Old Brookville home, and that he would destroy the prenup after the birth of their first child.
“He claimed he was just protecting his business, and that his lawyers made him have a prenup,” Cioffi-Petrakis said. “And me, a naïve young girl, I believed it.” She added that she’d been with Petrakis since she was 18 years old—six years before they were married—and that she was so committed that she’d converted from Catholicism to his religion of Greek Orthodox.
“I loved him, I trusted him and I believed in his word,” she explained.
But when he did not put the house in her name, and when she first gave birth 12 years ago to twin boys (and then later to a daughter, now 8), the two began what would be come a years-long journey in and out of lawyers’ offices to contest the prenuptial agreement.
Then finally, in January, a judge ruled in Cioffi-Petrakis’s favor, finding that she had successfully proven what is called “fraud by the inducement” in a contract. To do that, Cioffi-Petrakis explained, she presented the court with “patterns of behavior” to show that Petrakis “was not honest when he made the promises.”
Ziegler, author of “The Pre-Marital Planner,” further explained the court’s decision to Shine. “Many couples discuss the terms of their prenups and say they will do or say things in the future that are not memorialized in writing,” she said. “However, this fraudulent inducement to buy a house, put the marital home in joint name and make other financial incentives after the parties wed appeared to sway the appellate panel who agreed to set aside the prenuptial agreement based on fraud.”
Petrakis did not return a message left for him by Shine at one of his businesses, the One Stop Smoke Shop in Seaford, Long Island. His lavish Old Brookville home was featured in a 2010 New York Times story, “Over-the-Top Houses,” described as a “newly renovated shingle and stone farm ranch on 2.29 acres,” and equipped with a “lower-level nightclub” featuring a 24-foot onyx bar, 1,200-bottle wine cellar and a DJ booth. His chain of smoke shops, according to the New York Post, is worth “at least $5 million.”
Cioffi-Petrakis told Shine that she (with much help from her parents) shelled out nearly $475,000 in lawyers’ fees over the years, and that her husband has paid more than $600,000. “And we haven’t even gotten to the divorce,” she said. Despite the fact that the couple have been estranged since 2010 when Petrakis first filed for divorce, the proceedings were put on hold by the court until the the prenup matter could be settled. Now the two will be able to move ahead to make their split official.
The pressure of the case pushed her to extremes. “I almost took my own life because of the depression and stresses,” she said. “I wound up in the hospital with a nervous breakdown.”
A positive outcome of the ordeal, though, has been Cioffi-Petrakis starting her own business, Divorce Prep Experts, a divorce-court advisement service, which has been slowly getting off the ground since 2008.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I think I have advocated for myself better than any lawyer has,” she said. “My mission is to empower and protect anyone in this position. I know what to look out for, and I bring reputable professionals together to help.” Her company, she said, offers her clients invaluable advice and knowledge from judges, mediators, divorce coaches and child psychologists, in the hopes of saving time and money through the divorce process.
“Divorce Prep Experts can save lives,” she said.
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