Love & honour
When you’re planning a wedding, prenuptials may sound unromantic but they are often plain commonsense. By Linda Drummond.
When we’re getting married we can spend months, or even years, planning the perfect wedding. Coordinating colours, choosing the music, selecting flowers, writing personalised vows… but how many of us spend that much time planning our marriage? After all, a wedding lasts a day, but a marriage aims to be till death do us part. Statistics reveal that one in two marriages will end in divorce, and while we all go into marriage hoping ours won’t be one of them, sometimes a little preparation can help. We’re marrying later than ever before. These days the average age of marriage for men is 31 and for women 29, whereas in 1982 men were a mere 26, and women just 23 when they tied the knot.
This means that for many of us, we’ve got a lot more individual assets than our parents had before they married last century. But does signing a pre-nup mean you’re effectively signing an expectation that you’re going to end up as one of the one in two couples not making it to the death bit? No, says Jackie Vincent, an accredited family law specialist.
“A prenuptial agreement is all about planning for the future and the unknowns that the future holds for us,” she says. Vincent, who’s a partner with Watts McCray lawyers in Sydney, says that pre-nups “are certainly for people who have something to protect – something that they’ve worked for.” Indeed she says that for some people, they are vital. “Anyone in a second or third relationship should be prepared to think about it,” Vincent says. “If you’ve been through one nasty family court battle, keeping yourself out of that is the most important thing.”
Pre-nups aren’t just for married couples. De facto couples (gay and straight) can sign a co-habitation agreement (governed by state law) protecting any financial assets before moving in together.
Pre-nuptial agreements became legally binding in Australia in 2000, but most people still have no real idea who should sign one. Some people see them as typically American – something big stars do (or should do, Paul McCartney) – but not for your average Aussie. There’s the romantic view, and then there’s the practical view that looks at a pre-nup as a form of insurance (you hope you’re never going to write your car off, but if it happens, you’re covered).
Sitting down together and discussing your finances can help anchor a relationship, Vincent adds. “You don’t have to sign anything before the marriage, you can have the romantic times first and then get down
to the nitty gritty,” she says. Philip Johnson is a relationship therapist at Choosing Change in Sydney’s CBD and says that for a lot of people, even with expert project management of their marriage, there are certain things that keep coming up – particularly monetary issues.
“I recommend that people have both a joint account and their own account,” he says. “If you have to ask permission or feel obligated to ask your partner for money it can lead to issues. There needs to be an understanding of independence, financially and emotionally.”
This point is reiterated by Kristen Boschma from Veda Advantage, a company that facilitates credit checks for Australia’s major banks and lenders. “Love may be blind, but financial relationships are best entered into with eyes wide open,” she says. “What goes on your credit report has serious consequences for the future.” Boschma recommends that any couple planning to live together, whether in a de facto relationship or marriage, needs to sit down first and go over its financial plans. “It sounds boring, but it’s important,” she says.
All the experts body+soul spoke to recommend that couples sit down and discuss their finances and expectations of the relationship before committing to marriage or living together.
“A couple of sessions prior to the wedding gives them an enormous amount of information to go on with,” Johnson says. “There will always be problems in a relationship, but if you’ve sat down beforehand and have gone through all the big issues, it can help you see the most effective way of doing things.”
For some people, raising the issue of prenuptials appears to signify a lack of trust, but Johnson says people still need to protect their assets and their sense of self.
“When someone comes into your life, you hope they add something to it, but it’s important to realise that you’re still independent people. You need to be sure that you’re going to be okay for the rest of your life. Hopefully your partner will be there with you, but if they’re not, you still need to be sure you’re protected.”
It’s not just the monetary aspect that’s covered by a pre-nup. They can cover lifestyle issues such as how many children you wish to have as well. “I had one couple whose pre-nup covered a real division of labour: whose job was whose, down to putting out the rubbish,” Johnson says.
Vincent adds that the lifestyle aspects of a pre-nup (unlike the financial side), are not binding, however: “It’s an opportunity to talk about the hard questions and help your partner understand where you’re coming from.” A family lawyer is the person to go to to find out how it would work for you, Vincent says. To find a family lawyer to suit your situation, either ask the Law Society (which has a list of family lawyers), look in the Yellow Pages or go online. You won’t be the only one. Watts McCray dealt with around 20 to 30 pre-nups in the past year, and Vincent says they are on the increase with a large number of people enquiring about pre-nups and whether they may be suitable for their relationship.
“When our heart is overtaken with passion and joy, sometimes we may not see things clearly,” Johnson says. A pre-nup mightn’t be the most romantic thing you do in the relationship – but it could be one of the smartest.”