Prenuptial agreements are not just for wealthy parents who want to make sure that Junior doesn’t lose the family fortune if he gets divorced or the wealthy elderly widow who decides to marry the pool boy. You don’t need a pile of assets or sky-high income to benefit from a prenuptial agreement. Prenuptial agreements can give both individuals peace of mind and reassurance that their relationship is based on mutual love and understanding, not economic uncertainty and fear of being apart.
There are two broad areas you can address in a prenuptial agreement. The first is economic considerations in the event of a separation or divorce. This is what most people think of when they hear the word prenup. You can specify what will be considered marital property, how that will be determined and what will happen with marital property if you separate or divorce. You can also decide in advance how property will be valued and specifically exclude certain property from distribution. For example, under the PA Divorce Code, marital property is divided in “equitable distribution” based on a list of eleven factors, with no real formula. You can specify in a prenuptial agreement that instead of using the Divorce Code’s equitable distribution factors, the value of all marital property will be divided evenly. No formula, no list of factors, just value the property and divide it in half. You can also designate certain property that will go to each person in the event of a separation or divorce.
In addition to designating how property will be divided in the event of a separation or divorce, you can agree in advance how you will handle your income and expenses. You can specify how you’ll handle your income and expenses during your marriage and provide for spousal support, alimony, financial support, whatever name you want to give it, if you separate or divorce. You can also waive any rights to those forms of support in a prenuptial agreement. If you include any provisions regarding income and expenses in your prenuptial agreement, they can be as detailed or as simple as you wish.
The second area is estate planning. Prenuptial agreements are particularly useful for couples who have been married before and are coming into this new marriage with some assets and income and possibly have children from previous relationships. When you marry, even if you don’t change your estate plan to include your new spouse, the law automatically does so. If you die before your spouse, he or she will be entitled to a certain portion of your estate regardless of whether that’s what you both had anticipated. In a prenuptial agreement, you can specify how your estate will be handled and your new spouse can waive any or all interest in your estate. Of course, you should also change your estate planning documents after your marriage to make them consistent with the terms of the prenuptial agreement.
But marriage is based on love and we should plan for it to last forever and if we think about the consequences of divorce or separation, we must not be serious and committed, right? I think that’s an oversimplification and sometimes a convenient way to avoid talking about these tough topics in advance of getting married. If you’re planning to spend the rest of your life with someone, you owe it to both of you to have these conversations. Find out what your future spouse thinks should happen with your assets and income if you end up divorced or separated. Talk about how you’re going to handle your estate planning to confirm that you’re on the same page. And if you’re on the same page, then confirm it in a written agreement. One last point – you can make the terms of prenuptial agreements change over time and even agree that after a certain time period, the agreement will no longer be in effect.