Sure, weddings are romantic. But getting married also involves a legal agreement that has significant financial implications. And every year in the United States, about 630,000 of those legal agreements end in divorce. In 2020 alone, 2.3 people out of every 1,000 terminated their marriage.
If these couples didn’t have a prenup, they likely had to go through the arduous (and expensive) process of untangling their financial assets from their marital partnership. Even when couples are separated due to a tragic, sudden death, the surviving spouse may find themselves locked in a legal battle over their partner’s estate because they didn’t have the proper documents in place.
“The beautiful thing about a prenup is that you can define what you are going to do if either of these scenarios—a divorce or untimely death—occurs,” says Benjamin D. Moore, a family and matrimonial lawyer based in New York. “It makes things a lot simpler and less expensive.”
Even if you have no intention of separating from your partner (because, really, who does?), prenups can provide a road map for how to structure your finances as a couple—for example, deciding how much of your income to put into a personal retirement account or how much money you are entitled to if you leave the workforce to care for your children.
In fact, given that money is one of the top things couples fight about, establishing clear financial boundaries in a prenuptial agreement can help steer your marriage toward success.
In other words, you should really get a prenup. Here are seven things financial experts want you to know.
1. Begin creating a prenuptial agreement at least six months before the wedding.
Conventional wisdom tells us that, at least six months before the wedding, we should choose our dress, block hotel rooms for our guests, send our save the dates—and, yes, begin the process of drafting a prenuptial agreement, Moore explains. “Weddings are stressful enough; you don’t want a prenup creeping up on you too,” he says.
Bridget Grimes, a certified financial planner and the president of WealthChoice, says that starting the process early will also give you plenty of time to navigate the complicated emotions that can arise as a result. “No matter how open or solid a relationship is, the discussions around a prenup are never easy,” she says.
Moore recommends finishing and signing the prenuptial agreement at least two weeks before tying the knot. “The last thing you want is to have to sign a contract on your way to the altar,” he adds.
2. You should hire your own lawyer.
Even if your partner has way more money than you or you already have a relationship with a lawyer you both trust, you should hire your own lawyer to draft the prenuptial agreement.
“You need someone who is going to look out for your interests,” Moore says. The reasons for this are manifold. For example, in New York, where Moore practices, each partner is generally only legally required to provide a one-page statement of liabilities and assets in the process of drafting a prenup. “Let your lawyer be the bad guy,” he says. “If you want more financial info, let them ask for it.”
3. Be prepared to spend four figures.
The average cost of a prenuptial agreement is anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on how complicated your financial assets are. The prenuptial agreements Moore typically drafts, he says, run from $2,500 for the simplest agreements up to $25,000 for complex estates. This may seem like a lot of money, but consider that the cost of a divorce averages between $15,000 and $20,000.
4. Don’t waive alimony.
Generally in a prenuptial agreement, a lawyer will address divisions of assets as well as alimony payments. Even if you make far more money than your partner, or come into the marriage with a significant inheritance, Moore notes that you should never waive potential alimony payments without consulting your lawyer.
“You won’t be able to get alimony after the fact, for example if you become disabled or if you end up spending years working as a homemaker,” he says.
Let your lawyer negotiate the payments with your partner’s lawyer, rather than negotiating them directly with your future spouse, he recommends.
5. Consider debt.
In certain states—including California, Arizona, Texas and Wisconsin—any property acquired during a marriage becomes communal property. The same, however, goes for debt.
If you live in a state with community property laws, you may want to consider waiving the application of communal property laws from your debt in the prenuptial agreement, which will prevent you from having to pay your partner’s debt in the case of a divorce. Leaving your husband? Ouch. Having to pay off the debt he accrued on his RC truck hobby? Too painful to put into words.
6. Talk about death.
Even if death is the last thing on your mind in the months leading up to your wedding—or at least we hope it is—you should include a provision in the prenuptial agreement about how assets will be divided in the case of an untimely death. Do you want all your retirement accounts to go to future children? If you don’t specify this, your assets will be divided according to state law.
“In New York, for example, if you don’t have a prenup, it doesn’t matter what you put in your will,” Moore says. “Your spouse is automatically entitled to $50,000 or one-third of your estate, whichever is greater.”
7. Run the agreement by a CFP.
It’s worth showing your prenuptial agreement to a certified financial planner (CFP) before signing it. For example, maybe your parents use a CFP who is aware of future inheritances you might receive that they’ve never told you about. “CFPs make sure assets are protected, and estate planning is part of this,” says Grimes.
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Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, Rangefinder and MarketWatch, among other publications.