User's Guide to Prenups: For Better or Worse?

Okay, I am definitely out of step with the professionals, the lawyers and marriage counselors, who say that the prenup is an essential step for the couple about to get married this year. At first glance, their arguments in favor of a prenup are pretty persuasive. Since half of marriages end in divorce, they say, agreeing how you’ll split up what you own in the event of divorce even before you take vows is the smart move. Given those odds, a responsible couple considers the end game ahead of time. Getting married, the prenup supporters say, is a roll of the dice and protecting your own skin is the name of the game.

If that’s the way you feel, I say, don’t get married. How can you possibly expect to have a real marriage unless you’re in it together? The traditional vows are “for better or worse,” not “until I find something better.” Look, undoubtedly, some people come into a marriage with a much firmer financial cushion or more debt than their partner. It’s rare that two people have the exact same financial profile. What’s missing isn’t a legal document, but communication about those differences. The bride or husband to be saddled with debt needs to be clear about the issues. Likewise, the spouse who is heir to a family business needs to share his or her expectations. But people getting married should be ready to work together.

Truth is, few couples have the money conversation and to me – that is essential. If you don’t know what your fiance earns to the penny, that’s a recipe for disaster. How much does he or she save? What is the size of the 401(k)? Is there a mountain of credit card or college debt hiding in the wings? Once you finish the financial disclosure, then you can start to tackle the other important financial questions you’ll face as a couple. What are your financial goals? How are you going to get there together?

Prenup advocates say marriage is a contractual arrangement, so, they reason, why not protect it with another contractual arrangement? I say a marriage’s most fundamental essence isn’t filed away in the county courthouse but lived out every day and for that to happen it has to be built on trust.