Joint Accounts

Is It Worth Asking for a Prenup If I’m Not Rich?

Think of this as practice for all the tough conversations that marriage entails

Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

Dear Joint Accounts,

I recently got engaged, and while I’m not super rich, I have enough of a nest egg that I want to protect it. A few of my family members have encouraged me to get a prenup or at least talk to my fiance about it. There’s a good chance I’ll receive a small inheritance, too, so I think my family wants to make sure that money is safe. I’m not sure how the inheritance will play out with our joint finances when my fiance and I get married.

I don’t think my fiance will take it well if I ask for a prenup, either. My biggest fear is that she’ll be so offended she won’t want to get married at all. How much money do I need to have to start thinking about a prenup? Does it make sense if my net worth isn’t huge? And how do I bring this up to my fiance without her getting upset?

— Pondering a Prenup

FFirst, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way. The word “prenup” tends to send people into a frenzy, and the more you can separate myth from fact, the better the conversation will go. Much of what people know about prenups comes from celebrity culture — sensational headlines about messy divorces and fights over money. Often, if someone asks for a prenup, people assume it means they’re either greedy, uncommitted, or both.

But in the real world, prenuptial agreements are pretty unexciting. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t just for super wealthy people; even if your own assets don’t amount to much, prenups are useful. And what most people don’t know is that every married couple already has a prenup, whether they realize it or not.

“My attorney explains it like this: People who don’t create their own prenuptial agreement still have a version of one,” says Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial Takes On Investing. “It’s just the default laws of your state.” If you don’t specify otherwise, existing laws will determine what happens to your finances in case of divorce — crafting your own prenup just gives you a say in the matter.

But prenups don’t just decide what happens when you split — they can determine how finances are handled during a marriage, too. For instance, let’s say you decide to start a business and take out a big loan to fund it. In community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin), your spouse is on the hook for debt you incur during a marriage. A prenup can help you avoid that. If the business doesn’t work out and you default on the loan, the lender can come after your wages. With a prenup, you can specify that debt should remain separate, which would protect your spouse’s income and assets not just in case of divorce, but also during the marriage itself.

By asking your fiance for a prenup, you’re showing a desire to communicate clearly, plan for your joint future together, and bring you both a little peace of mind.

A prenup can help you figure out what happens to your assets after you die, too. Since your family is worried about your future inheritance, a prenup can help ease their minds. (And so can estate planning, even if you don’t get a prenup.) You can also use it to make sure your spouse, as well as your extended family, is financially covered.

So think of it this way: By asking your fiance for a prenup, you’re showing a desire to communicate clearly, plan for your joint future together, and bring you both a little peace of mind. And marriage is hard work — you should take any peace of mind you can get.

Make sure your soon-to-be-spouse understands that this is a collaborative task: A prenup would protect her, too, and that she’d have as much say in its content as you would. During the process of creating the prenup, typically you’d both have your own legal representation (some states require this), and those lawyers will work out the details on your behalf.

If you bring up these points to your fiance — that prenups are often misunderstood, and that they’re meant to protect both of you — she may be more willing to hear you out. It’s an awkward conversation, for sure, but there’s a gentle way to initiate it. Focus on your commitment to the marriage and the importance of intimacy. Try something like, “I know it’s an incredibly sensitive topic, but since we’re spending the rest of our lives with each other, I feel like we should be able to talk about anything.”

And emphasize that this in no way means you’re less confident in the relationship you two have. “Getting a prenup isn’t asking for a divorce, just like having auto insurance isn’t hoping you’re going to get into an accident,” Lowry says. “Marriage, at the end of the day, is still a merger of assets. In no other area of life would we be asked to enter into a contractual obligation without first protecting ourselves.”

Let’s not pretend that the clouds will suddenly part and your spouse will be happy about the conversation. Chances are, this is going to be a tough topic to discuss. It will be tense and emotional, and perhaps there’s no way around that. And you should also be prepared for the worst: There is a chance your fiance might give you an ultimatum, or threaten to call off the marriage if you insist on a prenup.

As unpleasant as it sounds, you may have to decide if you’re willing to give up some of your financial protection and peace of mind. But if you can broach the subject gently and discuss the advantages logically, while also being sensitive to your spouse’s feelings, the odds are better than the conversation will go much more smoothly. And since marriage is full of tough conversations, you can think of this one as practice.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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