Even while your head is in the clouds, it's usually a good idea to keep your feet on the ground. Many marriages fail and if you refuse to think beyond the white lace and promises, you may find your finances in chaos. Think of a marriage contract as a preemptive strike against that chaos, arranging beforehand what will happen if the two who became one want to to be two again.
Marriage contracts are more often called prenuptial agreements, or prenups, and have quite a snooty reputation. Thanks to celebrity divorce gossip, these pre-marriage contracts seem like high-drama vehicles for the rich and famous, but, in fact, most people can benefit from them. They serve many useful purposes other than simply keeping your poorer spouse from sinking his teeth into your fortune.
Primary Prenup Purposes
Prenuptial agreements clarify what happens if the prophesy turns out to be wrong when you say "until death do us part." Their primary function is to keep property separate so that whatever each spouse brings into the marriage remains theirs in the event of divorce. This doesn't just mean your castle in Spain, but such mundane things as your old VW bus, the washer and dryer your mom is gifting you for the new house, and the money you've stashed away for a rainy day.
Other Marriage Contract Considerations
The flip side of assets is debt, and a valid prenuptial agreement also attaches each spouse's pre-marriage debts to her own bank account. Without such an agreement, creditors may turn to marital property to pay one spouse's separate debt, especially in community property states where anything earned by either spouse during the marriage belongs equally to both. Prenups also serve an essential purpose for those with kids from earlier marriages because spouses can agree not to claim the share of property they're entitled to by law when the other dies.
Writing the Agreement
You and your spouse create your prenuptial agreement to reflect your preferences and needs so it is important to figure out all three points before you begin. State laws vary as wildly as couples' circumstances, so figure out what your state allows by visiting the court website or law library. Depending on where you live, it's entirely possible that your prenup can override certain state laws, but check to be sure. Then sit down together and list the ends you hope to accomplish. Don't waste your time deciding child support and custody issues before the marriage -- courts do not accept such agreements and some states refuse to honor spousal support limits in prenups as well. If you stick to property and debt division, you should be on safe ground, but each of you should run the contract by your own attorney before signing.
- Rudyanto Wijaya/iStock/Getty Images