A prenuptial agreement, often referred to as a “prenup,” is a legal contract put in place before marriage that protects the couple as individuals in the event of divorce. A prenup can be as simple as legally clarifying that assets brought into a marriage by one person won’t later be divvied up in a divorce. But prenups can also be comprehensive enough that they legally bind a couple to individual responsibilities for the length of the marriage.
We often think of prenups as a rich-people problem. Maybe this is because there is so much money involved when millionaires get married that getting a prenup seems like the practical, if unromantic, choice. For the non-Beyonce and Jay-Z’s among us, asking for a prenup might feel like a statement of mistrust.
Except prenups aren’t just for the ultra-wealthy. In fact, there are many reasons a prenup might be a good idea for couples at any income level who are thinking about marriage — even if you have just a few thousand in the bank.
Your partner has been divorced before
If you’re thinking about marrying someone who has been divorced in the past, you might find yourself worried that history will repeat itself. People grow, life happens, and relationship problems typically take two. But understanding and believing your partner’s assurances that what you two share is different and more divorce-proof than what they had before can feel naive.
There’s something deeply romantic about being so wrapped up in love that you don’t care about anything else — but that doesn’t make it smart. If some part of you wants to protect your interests in case life doesn’t turn out the way you hope, using the track record of the person you are about to share your life with as a guide isn’t cynical, it’s common sense.
Your partner is wealthier than you
Just because you aren’t trying to protect billions of dollars in assets doesn’t mean you don’t have assets worth protecting. Perhaps your partner has more wealth than you and you want to make sure they understand that your motives for marrying them are pure. Whatever the case, when there’s an imbalance of wealth entering into a marriage, things can get tricky. And talking about money with your partner can be hard, especially when one person has a lot more of it than the other.
Sometimes the best way to handle these conversations is to agree with your partner to remove emotions from the conversation and get down to brass tacks. This is why a prenup can be a straightforward way to plan how you would navigate your financial imbalance should your relationship end.
Your partner has more debt than you
Debt is a common reason couples remain unmarried. After all, marriage is a legal agreement to share your life with another person. Depending on the state in which you live, you may not be responsible for your partner’s individually accrued debt upon marriage. But even if their debt will always be theirs no matter the status of left-hand ring fingers, debt can still loom large in a relationship.
Maybe you see your partner’s debt as an indication of their financial incompetence. Or maybe you worry that, due to the financial constraints of your partner’s debt, you will be left paying for more than your fair share of your combined lives if you get married. Or maybe you have more debt than your partner and you don’t want to burden them with helping you get out of debt. A prenup can be a great way to delineate whose debt is whose problem.
You have children
If you or your partner have children, joining your lives in marriage is also making a life-defining choice for other people who aren’t part of your romance. You may not have any great wealth to protect, but you need to protect your children.
Perhaps you are worried about what will happen if you died or became incapacitated while your children are still young. Or maybe your children are adults and you want them to retain their inheritance despite your late-blooming love. A prenup can be a good way to make sure that the children’s interests are protected.
You or your partner has a business
Owning a business is a relationship in its own right. You have a relationship with your customers, maybe investors, possible business partners, and employees. Tying the fates of all those people — and the fate of a business that encapsulates your own hopes and dreams — to a marriage that could end in divorce has the potential to become quite messy. A prenup may be a solid strategy for getting ahead of any such issues.
You want your private life to remain private
If your partner is a public figure or you are, divorce comes with the hefty price tag of your private business becoming public. Maybe neither of you are public figures at the time of your marriage, but becoming one is something one or both of you aspire to. For instance, if your partner is a budding author, who’s to say a messy divorce isn’t the basis of the memoir that finally gets their name on the New York Times Best Seller list?
If you’re a private person harboring any concern that one day the person you love is going to make your life watercooler fodder, a prenup that includes a confidentiality clause might offer you the reassurance you need.
You have an inheritance to protect
While neither you nor your partner feels wealthy enough to justify a prenup right now, your circumstances may change in the future.
If one or both of you stand to inherit assets later, factors like family legacy and the intent of the deceased should probably be considered before your inheritance is chopped up by a couple of divorce lawyers. Depending on the perspective of the person considering leaving you an inheritance, a prenup could also give them the peace of mind they need to make you a beneficiary.
You plan on being a stay-at-home-parent
If you and your partner have decided that one of you should stay home with the kids instead of earning their own income, there’s a bet being placed. The bet is that your marriage will go the distance or that the income-earning partner will do right by the stay-at-home-parent even if the marriage doesn’t.
This is all well and good — until it’s not. If you learn that while you were home caring for the kids your spouse was having an affair, you may find yourself in a position that alimony and child support can’t fix.
Depending on how long you were out of the workforce, it may be difficult to get back in. Plus, the stay-at-home spouse is likely far behind on retirement savings. A prenup is a great way for a SAHP to ensure that the hours they’ve spent doing unpaid labor don’t go unprotected.
At best, prenups may feel like an expensive hassle you’re not rich enough yet to worry about. At worst, you may feel that you’re setting yourself up to fail by planning for a divorce.
There are DIY prenup options, so the expense shouldn’t stop you. In fact, working on a DIY prenup with your partner could be a great opportunity to cover some heavy topics every couple should talk about before marriage but many never do. And, if you're planning to grow your wealth (which your should), then that's even more of a reason to want a prenup in place.
As for prenups being a road map for failure, well, that’s a little bit like refusing to pack water for a hike because the weather is cool, you consider yourself a fast hiker, and you're not currently thirsty. If you’re wrong, you’re in serious trouble. If you’re right, what was the harm in being prepared?