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You want me to sign a what?

It's nice to have a few Benjamins to sweat over, but do you really need a prenuptial before marrying? Up front, I'll admit to a gross prejudice against the idea, but since I've spent some time gathering my fairly substantial assets, I figured it couldn't hurt to learn a bit about it.

First prejudice blown: prenups are not just pessimism-in-a-bottle regarding a possible divorce. More than anything, prenups allow you to review critical matters related to your estate, your small business, AND your marriage and family stuff. You will be better prepared for your financial life together, any possibility of divorce, and death.

Second prejudice blown: worry about divorce later, what's the big deal now? Whether you believe these stats apply to you or not, here they are: half of all couples married this year will get divorced, and for each divorce they will shuck out $30,000 on average just for lawyers to get it over with. If nothing else, that should put a bug in your ear to read on.

Consider if any of the following applies to you:

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  • You have more assets than your partner, or you have comparable assets but both sides have amassed enough to be worried about it. Yes, that's subjective, and it DOES include any retirement money you've set aside. If you labored to build your assets at all, you have license to feel a little proprietary about it.

  • You have children from a previous marriage and you'd like them to receive some or all of your inheritance if you die. (This won't happen as a default unless you plan for it.)

  • You own a business or work for a family business. Ditto if you're a partner in a law or medical practice. (It's smart to consider who controls the business or partnership share in a marriage -- your co-workers and partners will thank you for it.)

  • You own real estate or are ready to buy property.

  • One of you is being supported by the other while you finish college or graduate school.

  • One of you plans to give up a lucrative job after the marriage to take care of kids, even for a few years.

How to do it right
If you're going to bother, plunge in early and do it legitimately. Both of you will need a lawyer and experts suggest you settle papers a minimum of a month before the actual wedding -- even earlier if you expect to write checks together for the ceremony or reception. Each of you must disclose everything you own, and valuable items such as antiques, property, or a business have to be appraised by a third party. A valid agreement can only be reached when both of you really know what's at stake. It should be notarized and witnessed by at least two neutral parties.

What's in it?
Why, anything you want. If you have a business, you can state who owns it, who pays its expenses and who will control it in the event of death or divorce. Same if you own a house or property -- who owns it, who foots the bill for the water heater, who gets it later. Although you can, you don't necessarily have to deal with sensitive issues like alimony or child support in this document. Nor should you get into wild specifics about how the marriage will be run. It's a good enough start just figuring out what each of you owns and what among those things you are not prepared to share...or are.

Take me as the guinea pig. I have solid retirement and nonretirement portfolios totaling more than $100,000 and I'm very close to being able to purchase my own home. I stand to get a mild inheritance (don't awash me in fan mail just yet; when I say mild I mean mild). I'm also on the path to being an entrepreneur -- if and when I do launch my business, I know I'd want full control over it. All key issues to address if my man and I were to consider an agreement.

Sounds like it stinks. Well, don't do it, nobody's chewing your lobe off. A lawyer can advise you about ways to restructure your will or estate that mirror the effects of a prenuptial, and there's also a less stringent document available known as a partition agreement. Although, if it's a fear of relationships-with-documents you have, this alternative isn't much different from an out-and-out prenup.

Start slow and play it by ear. Open a joint checking account. Get some financial goals going that pertain to you both -- whether it's a vacation or a new couch -- and work toward them together. Any nasty differences in opinion should surface with a little financial practice,  and you can work them out before you put all your assets -- and your single life -- at stake.


-- Posted: Nov. 28, 2000

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See Also
The ABCs of prenuptial agreements
Joining hearts and bank accounts
Have a no-surprises wedding night

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