A pre-nuptial agreement, better known as a prenup, is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re planning your wedding.
Most engaged couples would positively shudder at the unromantic prospect of drawing up a prenup covering how they’d divide property and other mutual assets should they separate.
But that time you're planning for your wedding is also a good time to plan for the future. Sorting out your finances ahead of the wedding means you don't have to worry about it later and you can enjoy a long happy marriage, knowing that if any circumstances were to change, you'd both be protected.
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You might think pre-nuptial agreements are only for celebrities and millionaires, but they’re becoming increasingly popular in the UK for ordinary people who want to be prepared.
We spoke to both legal and relationship experts to ask what is a prenup and why it might be right for you.
What Is a Prenup?
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Arron Bortoft, a director at top divorce firm Vardags, explains, “A prenup is a document setting out how you would like to determine the division or protection of assets should you divorce.” Your assets include things like any property you own, savings that you’ve worked hard to build, investments and inheritance.
Both you and your partner will need lawyers to advise you on the process and you will all sit down to draw up a legal agreement detailing what you each own and how you’ll split it if the wedding doesn’t work.
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While prenups are common in the US and Europe, they are not legally binding in the UK. However Arron says that if they satisfy certain conditions and don’t lead to an unfair outcome, then a prenup will be given significant weight by a judge in court.
“One of the most important conditions for an enforceable prenup is that each party has had independent legal advice, and when there’s a lot at stake it’s worth securing good advice from an expert family lawyer,” he advises.
Do I Need a Prenup?
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Prenups are not just for the rich and famous. The idea of a prenup is that prevention is better than cure: sort out your finances now and you won’t have to worry about them – and the resulting stress and pain - should your marriage not work out.
Even if you think your situation right now doesn’t make one necessary, it might one day. Arron explains, “Increasingly people are marrying later in their lives when they have already inherited family money, built up wealth independently or had children. In cases like this, a prenup can protect for lots of reasons, such as if you want to protect pre-marital assets, inheritance and family generated assets.”
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There are plenty of sensible reasons to get a prenup even if you’re not a multimillionaire, such as if one of you owns a business, if one partner has personal debt that they want to guard against the other person being liable for, and especially if there are children from a previous relationship who you want to protect assets for.
Arron says, “A prenup might go some way to avoid nasty surprises like finding you have to sell your company for your divorce settlement, or dissipate the inheritance you were building up for your children.”
Can a Prenup Help My Marriage?
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Your engagement should be a happy time so it’s easy to see why you might want to avoid the unromantic and awkward topic of divorce. In reality, that period when you’re planning your future together is the best time to have these discussions.
Relationship counsellor Christine West says it makes perfect sense to draw up a pre-nuptial agreement and that it is not something that should be regarded as a sign of lack of faith in the partnership.
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“What most couples still don’t realise is that it’s relatively easy to marry, but horribly painful and difficult to divorce,” she says.
“When both parties are feeling bitter, guilty, sad and resentful, it makes it almost impossible to think clearly about how the financial separation should be handled. This is when you end up with arguments, recriminations, traumatised children and expensive legal bills.
“If couples can be level headed enough to sit down together and draw up a plan before they marry, they can be certain they will never have to go through these things.
“If they stay together, that’s wonderful, and they haven’t lost anything by being prepared. In some respects, couples who arrange pre-nuptial agreements are underlining their confidence and trust in one another, which is the basis for a successful marriage, not a recipe for failure.”
What Do You Include in a Prenup?
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Whatever your financial situation now, couples should make provision for major changes in circumstances such as the birth of children, ill health, or inheritances in their prenup.
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Arron recommends “flexibility, to account for life’s uncertainties" and "review clauses and amendments to account for the stages in life such as babies and old age".
"You never know what might happen in the future, and this has the double benefit of facilitating some very important conversations that any engaged couple should be having."
How Much Does a Prenup Cost?
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Julie-Ann Harris, Head of Family at solicitors Coffin Mew, says that cost of a prenup depends on the complexity of the case.
“Costs range from £1,500 for a fairly straightforward prenup up to £10,000 plus VAT for cases including complex business arrangements, overseas elements and significant disclosure requirements.
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"I’ve heard of prenups costing much more but it depends on where you go for your advice, the seniority of solicitor dealing with your agreement and the specific circumstances of your case. In addition, your case may necessitate expert advice from others, for example a barrister, accountant or surveyor so you should be prepared for extra costs if your case is more complicated,” she says.
How Do I Ask for a Prenup?
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It’s never going to be an easy conversation, but sit your partner down and focus on the benefits of being honest, upfront and prepared before the wedding. However, that kneejerk reaction that it's dooming the marriage before it’s even begun can make people reject a prenup out of hand.
In this case, adopt an approach that removes emotion from the subject. Explain it’s a sensible and pragmatic financial move, especially if one of you owns a business, has personal debt or children from a previous marriage.
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Relate counsellor Barbara Bloomfield warns against using a prenup as a form of “control” by including an adultery clause. This is popular in some celebrity marriages, where a person gets a chunk of money if their partner cheats. Insisting on a clause like this is likely to offend a partner as it implies a lack of trust. You may be best to seek counselling to look at underlying issues instead of going down this path, such as with relationship support charity Relate.
What If My Partner Won’t Sign a Prenup?
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Julie-Ann explains that you can’t impose a prenup on anyone.
“The most common reason people refuse to sign a prenup is their perception that they are not trusted by their partner who, on the flip side, fears they might risk their fortune without one! It’s a delicate situation and one that can be easily overcome with openness, honesty and transparency. If your partner still refuses to sign a pre-nup you will have to consider if you are prepared to marry without an agreement in place.”
The one thing you must never do is try to pressure your partner into a prenup. Julie-Ann says that you should aim to complete a prenup at least one full month before the wedding so there’s no suggestion of one party putting pressure on the other - one of the main factors that will void a prenup.
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Always seek the advice of a professional lawyer if you're thinking of drawing up a pre-nuptial marriage contract.
For more wedding queries solved, check out our advice on how to uninvite geusts from your wedding and how to deal with interfering parents.