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Everything you need to know about prenuptial agreements
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Without a formal contract, you could end up a lot less rich -- like director Steven Spielberg. His ex-wife, Amy Irving, got half of what he earned during their four-year marriage because their prenup was scribbled on a napkin and she didn't have a lawyer. Her take: $100 million.

Here are a few more tips:

Use only matrimonial lawyers who are familiar with prenups and the laws of the state in which you will be living.
Know that you cannot waive rights to child support payments.
Understand that your spouse's will can't supersede the prenup if the will is stingier. But a will can be more generous than a prenup and leave the widow or widower more than what they agreed to before the marriage.
Finally, and although it seems obvious, make sure the agreement is in writing and the signing is witnessed by a lawyer. It is recommended the contract be signed in triplicate with the groom- and bride-to-be each getting an original copy, and a third being kept with an independent lawyer, CPA or in a safety deposit box.

Keeping it up to date
Zwack encourages couples with prenups to review them every few years.

After 10 years of marriage, for example, you might want to consider giving your spouse more than the original prenup provided for. "Prenuptial agreements are written defensively," he said, "so after a certain number of years, it's good to be more generous."

One option for softening the blow of a prenup is to add a "sunset clause," which specifies a time at which the contract would expire -- for example, after 10 years of marriage.

"Some people like that idea, others don't," says Dunnan. "However, marriages do end after 10 or 20 years, so review it with your lawyers carefully."

Legal benefits of prenups
Difficult as it may be to talk about money before marriage, doing so can save heartache and hassles in the long run. A prenup can minimize the financial and emotional toll of a divorce. Couples without one will have their assets distributed for them by the state if the marriage ends and they disagree about who should get what.

Without a prenup, assets could end up in the hands of your spouse's children from a previous marriage instead of your own kids, or they could go to a slothful mate who did nothing while you toiled away at a business or book that eventually became a big success.

"If you don't want a divorce court to make the final decision about how your assets will be divided, a prenuptial can protect you," says Dunnan. "Without a prenup you're letting your financial future be determined by a third party."

If you live in one of the nation's nine community property states -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin -- the law says property accumulated during the marriage will be divided equally.
In all other "equitable distribution states," assets are divvied according to what the court deems fair. The judge would take into consideration things such as the length of the marriage, whether there are children, and the couple's age, health, job skills and other factors. Alaska is a special case -- it's an equitable distribution state, but it has a law that allows people to voluntarily enter into a community property agreement for certain assets.

Zwack says premarital agreements are a personal decision, but without one couples relinquish not only power over their assets but privacy as well.

"(The courts) shouldn't have to step in and interfere with a husband and wife's private financial affairs," he says.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Updated: May 10, 2006
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