More Than Money
Issue #40
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Money and Relationships

Table of Contents

“To Pre or Not to Pre - Financial Agreements for Couples”

By Ruth Ann Harnisch

If your relationship can't survive the creation of a prenuptial agreement, perhaps it doesn't deserve to survive. After all, money is the number one reason couples fight, and sometimes fights lead to separation. That's when you discover the truth: You do have a financial agreement. Your government drew it up for you, just as the government has an estate plan for you if you die without a will.

I was the moneyed spouse in my first marriage. I felt robbed by the financial settlement at divorce. I knew firsthand what failure to create a legal agreement about money could cost, so I insisted on a prenuptial agreement when I was ready to remarry.

I'd like to tell you that my second husband and I created an agreement that both of us thought was fair, and that we had loving and reasonable discussions about the contract. I'd like to tell you that, but it would be a big fat lie.

We made almost every mistake possible, according to today's experts. Perhaps our biggest mistake was tiptoeing around the specifics. The two of us had general conversations in which we came to vague agreements about what each of us wanted to protect. My husband-to-be wanted to protect his assets. I wanted to protect myself against poverty-I was giving up a lucrative career. Then he met with his lawyer, I met with my lawyer, and the result was a "sign this or we don't get married" ultimatum, just before the wedding. Our attorneys were more concerned with the document than with the people who were signing it or the relationship it was supposed to serve. It was a bitter process, and we didn't know how to make it a better process.

That was 18 years ago, when these agreements were thought to be useful only for the wealthy, and it was nearly impossible to ask anyone but an attorney about such private matters. Now, thanks to the Internet, Judge Judy, and an explosion of personal financial advice in the media, lots of people know that every couple needs a financial agreement.

Regardless of your net worth, income, gender, marital status, age, or just about anything else, if you're in a couple and you share a home or any financial arrangements, a legal agreement is in both of your best interests.


Equality in Marriage Institute
Founded in 1998 by Lorna Wendt, the Equality in Marriage Institute helps people understand and obtain equality before, during, and after marriage. Its website, call center, and programs provide resources and support to both men and women in any kind of couples relationship. The website also offers resources for parents and friends, including a thoughtful guide called "The Commitment Conversation," which may be ordered as a gift.

These agreements can actually help bring a couple closer together, if the couple gets good advice on how to talk about the issues constructively. My favorite resource is the nonprofit Equality In Marriage Institute, founded in 1998 by Lorna Wendt. She thought marriage was a 50-50 proposition-until her wealthy husband left her and offered her 10-90. Because even that tiny share was in the millions, many thought she should be grateful and go away. It was principle that made her fight for what she thought marriage guaranteed-half. She was awarded much more than her husband offered, although the court didn't agree that marriage meant 50-50. She used some of her wealth to found the Institute, determined to help others learn from her experience.

As for my husband and me, our relationship survived the prenup, despite our initial clumsiness, and now we are working on financial agreements regarding our estate. Thanks to nearly two decades of learning to communicate clearly and with respect for each other's sensitivities, we have avoided the painful mistakes we made in the prenup process. We are working with trusted advisors whose goal is to serve us as a couple without turning us into adversaries. It's important for us to make plans for the distribution of our assets; we know that if we don't create our own legal agreement, the government already has one written for us.

Ruth Ann Harnisch is chair emerita of the board of directors of More Than Money, and serves on the board of directors of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Society of Professional Journalists. She serves on the board of governors of the International Association of Coaches, as well as several advisory boards. Ms. Harnisch is president of The Harnisch Family Foundation and is also a personal coach.

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