In my Flemington, New Jersey family law practice, I will occasionally negotiate prenuptial agreements for couples contemplating marriage but looking to set specific parameters in the event of their divorce or the passing of one of the parties. I always refer to prenuptial (also known as a premarital agreement or antenuptial agreement) agreements as the most tricky document to negotiate in the realm of family and divorce law–as certain objectives are sought in the negotiation–but negotiating too much can upset an otherwise happy couple.
Although prenuptial agreements are more common in second marriages and/or where one or both parties have accumulated substantial wealth, prenuptial agreements are becoming increasingly common among all age groups and asset classes (even millennials).
That said, there is often one party that is the driver of the prenuptial agreement. Sometimes, that party isn’t even contemplating marriage. (I’ve noticed over the years many parents being the driving force behind their son or daughter’s premarital agreement).
With all that said, what should you do if you’re engaged and your spouse asks you to enter into a prenuptial agreement?
What is the Purpose of a Prenuptial Agreement? What is a Prenup?
To first answer that question, it’s perhaps important to better understand what a prenuptial agreement is, and isn’t. Prenuptial agreements are a form of contract setting forth an understanding between the parties about their marriage and the end of their marriage. It is required that this agreement be made prior to the marriage (although reconciliation and postnuptial agreements are sometimes contemplated by New Jersey law). A prenuptial agreement only becomes enforceable upon the parties actually marrying.
Prenuptial agreements can be quite simple or very complex. As a form of contract, the parties are given great leeway in drafting the agreement’s specific terms and language.
New Jersey Prenuptial Agreement must be in writing in order to be enforceable. They must also have a “statement of assets” annexed/attached to the Agreement. Like most contracts, “consideration” must be given, and the Agreement must also be signed by both parties so as to be legally binding.
Under the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, the parties may contract respecting some of the following types of issues:
- Rights and obligations relating to real property and the disposition of such property;
- Choice of Law for a separation/divorce/etc;
- Spousal support;
- NOTE: prenuptial agreements cannot waive a child’s right to support from either parent and cannot address custody or parenting time issues.
Should I Agree to Sign a Prenuptial Agreement?
Now that the basic framework of a New Jersey prenuptial agreement is understood, onto the primary question addressed by this blog post: what should you do if your spouse seeks a prenuptial agreement?
Firstly, it’s important to not take the suggestion of a prenuptial agreement personally or as an indictment of your relationship or your finacee’s trust in you. There are many reasons to seek a prenuptial agreement, and not all of them are negative. As noted above, it’s a growing trend and helps provide some control to both parties to determine what would occur in a worst-case scenario outcome. For risk-adverse people (and with divorce rates still somewhat high), this may simply be a reasonable request.
If you are concerned, you should discuss your concerns with your fiancee and get a sense of their motivations. It may be that it is not necessary to pursue a prenuptial agreement. If they persist, make sure you both have an understanding of the process to be utilized and the reasons behind the request so as to not strain the relationship.
If your spouse does insist on negotiating a prenuptial agreement, it’s important that you select your own independent counsel to review the agreement and to help you negotiate it, as necessary. Do not allow your spouse or their attorney to select your attorney for you. It may seem ok now but will only lead you to feel cheated and upset by the process later on at the time of enforcement (even if everyone is operating in good faith).
Make sure your attorney fully explains the process to you along with the specific repercussions of what you are signing. You should have a firm understanding of what the law would be absent a prenuptial agreement versus the language contemplated, so you can understand what you are gaining (or losing) by entering into the agreement versus the natural status of the law. For instance, alimony is available to many parties to a divorce in New Jersey. In general terms, the greater the disparity in income between the parties coupled with the longer the duration of the marriage, the more a party may have alimony exposure to the other.
A prenuptial agreement may call for a permanent waiver of alimony. In such a situation it’s important to recognize what your expected exposure (or benefit) from alimony may be. It may be difficult or impossible to fully understand (as you are negotiating in the present an unknown future), but it’s important that you view the more realistic potentialities and have an understanding of what you will be giving up (or gaining) by that specific language.
You should review the entire contract through that prism and then view it globally to determine if it is reasonable and fair. To be enforceable, there is no requirement that the agreement be fair, just that it not be so unfair as to be “unconscionable” at the time the agreement is entered into.
You should work with your attorney to provide financial documentation (and to review financial documentation from your spouse) as this is a requirement of a prenuptial agreement and will help you determine whether or not proposed prenuptial agreement language is fair.
In my legal opinion, you should also not be afraid to voice your concerns to your lawyer and to negotiate the matter (even aggressively if so required). If your fiancee is the one seeking a prenuptial agreement then their feelings should not be hurt if you are seeking to negotiate an agreement that is fair to both of you.
Your fiancee is looking to protect their interests, or they wouldn’t be asking you to sign a prenuptial agreement. Likewise, you should take this opportunity to likewise ensure that your interests are being protected. You will only regret it later on if you let the bliss of upcoming nuptials silence valid concerns. By that point in time it will be too late to wish the agreement away, as it will likely be binding.
As with most legal documents, you should not sign anything or waive any rights (such as a right to independent legal counsel) without first meeting with your own attorney and having your attorney review the agreement and advise you regarding its pros, cons, and legal meanings.
By working with experienced family law counsel, you can determine the answer appropriate to your specific set of circumstances, and determine a just and fair resolution to the potential issues created when your spouse asks you to review and sign a prenuptial agreement.
If you’re considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact me to discuss your options. You can schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 908-237-3096 or by scheduling your own divorce consultation online by clicking here.