When a couple marries, the last thing on their minds is likely to be divorce.
In the heady, romantic days running up to the wedding, most engaged couples would positively shudder at the prospect of discussing how they’re going to divide up the presents, property or any other mutual assets should they separate in the future.
Yet if they stopped to consider that almost half of marriages end in divorce in this country, they might realise that it’s something best talked about while they still feel passionately fond of one another.
And that’s where the lawyers come in. Not when the marriage is over, but before it’s even begun.
Prenuptial contracts which spell out how a divorcing couple’s assets will be shared are becoming increasingly popular in Britain.
There’s nothing new about them. The wealthy and those with plenty to lose, have been pragmatic about such things for centuries. But for the first time, ordinary people are beginning to plan ahead.
Changes in lifestyle are one of the factors influencing the trend. People now marry later in life, by which time they have often amassed a fair amount of savings and material possessions they don’t want to part with no matter what the future brings.
Those entering second, or subsequent marriages invariably want to make sure existing children won’t lose out should the marriage go pear-shaped.
Obviously, the more there is to lose, the more anxious a partner will be to protect his or her assets.
This is particularly true of film stars, rock singers and millionaires. Barbra Streisand delayed her marriage to fiance James Brolin while their lawyers sorted out a watertight prenuptial agreement.
Michael Jackson, said to be worth £500 million, had a contract with his wife, Debbie Rowe, which gives her no rights to his fortune in the event of a divorce.
And Elizabeth Taylor signed an agreement with her eighth husband, Larry Fortensky, although he still left the marriage with a smile on his face and £1 million in his pocket.
Relationships counsellor Christine West says it makes perfect sense to draw up a prenuptial agreement and that it is not something that should be regarded as a sign of lack of faith in the partnership.
“What most couples still don’t realise is that it’s relatively easy to marry, but horribly painful and difficult to divorce,” she said.
“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 prenuptial agreements are underlining their confidence and trust in one another, which is the basis for a successful marriage, not a recipe for failure.”
Such agreements are still unusual here, although in parts of Europe and America they are routine. Where we differ from our more forward-thinking counterparts is in the fact that they are still not recognised by the English courts.
The Lord Chancellor’s department is currently considering reforms that would made these contracts legally enforceable.
At present, judges are more likely to take them into account during divorce proceedings if both partners seek independent legal advice beforehand, and if both were honest about their finances.
Couples should also make provision for major changes in circumstances such as the birth of children, ill health, or inheritances.
In America, some couples write into their contracts pledges to spend quality time together, but beware of trying to draw up rules for the regularity of more intimate relations.
It is illegal to enter into a contract for the provision of sexual services — even if those involved are married to one another.
Seek the advice of a professional lawyer if you're thinking of drawing up a prenuptial marriage contract between you before your wedding celbrations commence.