Public Policy in Family Contracts, Part II: Antenuptial Contracts

Author: Elsje Bonthuys

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: BA LLB LLM (Stell) PhD (Cantab), Professor, University of the Witwatersrand
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 32 Issue 1, 2021, p. 3 – 23


This, the second part of an article on public policy in contracts between family members, focuses on legality in antenuptial contracts, particularly those which exclude all forms of sharing between spouses. The Matrimonial Property Act 88 of 1984 is now 35 years old and, apart from writing, it neither requires formalities to ensure that prospective spouses who enter into antenuptial contracts fully appreciate the consequences of their agreements, nor does it guarantee that the agreed upon property system is fair to both spouses. Instead, the focus is upon protecting the interests of third parties and creditors. The common-law principle of immutability makes it very onerous for parties to change the matrimonial property consequences during their marriage and, because the judicial discretion to order redistribution of benefits at divorce is limited to marriages concluded before the implementation of the Matrimonial Property Act, enforcement of antenuptial contracts at the termination of the marriage can lead to grossly unfair results. This unfairness has implications for gender equality, both because of gendered disparities in bargaining power at the conclusion of antenuptial contracts and legislation which limits the courts’ ability to deviate from contracts which mostly favour men, while retaining a discretion to deviate from contracts which tend to favour women. This article argues that the second leg of the public policy test, as articulated by the Constitutional Court in Barkhuizen v Napier can remedy the inadequacies in the statutory and common law by allowing the courts to consider inequalities in bargaining power and unfairness at the time of the enforcement of antenuptial contracts, in effect overriding the principle of immutability and creating a residual judicial discretion not to enforce an antenuptial contract.