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Protecting Assets without A Pre-Nuptial Agreement

When wedding bells are ringing, divorce is the last thing you and your fiancé want to be thinking about. Still, you might be rightfully concerned about what would happen to your assets in the event of a divorce—or your death. You may also be worried that suggesting a prenuptial agreement could hurt your future spouse by making them feel as if you don’t trust them, thereby creating friction before the marriage even begins.

While such concerns are valid, you should know that prenups aren’t your only option for shielding your assets from these scenarios. With a well-designed estate plan, for example, you can structure your assets in such a way to keep what you have safe, provide for your future spouse in the event of your death, and also protect your assets in the event of a divorce. In this way, you can avoid having the prenup conversation all together.

We do recommend talking with your future spouse about your assets, what would happen in the event of your death, and also making plans in advance so you can feel confident that any children from a prior marriage (or an expected inheritance) are well-planned for no matter what happens. In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss the pros and cons of prenuptial agreements, and then in part two, provide estate-planning alternatives you may want to consider.

Advantages of a Prenup

Sets clear financial expectations: For many couples, not openly discussing money and the partnership’s financial expectations can lead to big problems down the road. In fact, money problems are one of the leading reasons that marriages end, right up there with infidelity. A well-counseled prenuptial agreement could be an opportunity to start your marriage with complete transparency and clearly establish the financial and property rights of each spouse should a divorce occur or in the event of the death of either spouse.

Helps protect your separate assets: If you have any tangible or intangible assets you are bringing into the marriage that you don’t want to risk losing, a prenuptial agreement can help shield that property from divorce proceedings or from a future “elective share” of a spouse upon your death. This can be vital if you have significant assets like a business, real estate, intellectual property, vehicles, or family heirlooms. And, if you know you’ll want to ensure your assets go to children from a prior marriage, a prenuptial agreement can protect those assets for your children.

Helps prevent a lengthy, contentious, and expensive divorce: Divorce is never fun and can often be both emotionally and financially painful, but putting a prenuptial agreement in place could make it less so. Clearly establishing the financial and property rights of each spouse when the relationship is at its most loving—and putting those parameters in a legally-binding document—can greatly reduce the chances of you two duking it out in court later if your marriage doesn’t work out. A long, expensive court battle is the last thing you need when dealing with the painful emotions and often-hefty legal fees associated with a divorce.

Helps prevent disputes over debt: Not everyone is equal in their ability to manage their money. As mentioned earlier, disagreements over finances are a frequent reason marriages fail. Therefore, it could be a good idea to use a prenup to identify who is responsible for taking care of specific debts and liabilities. You don’t want to be stuck paying for your ex-spouse’s credit card debt when you had nothing to do with racking it up.

Disadvantages of a Prenup

It’s not exactly a romantic gesture: No matter how untrue this assumption may be, people often perceive creating a prenuptial agreement as expecting the marriage to fail or that it indicates a lack of trust. Such concerns should be respected and addressed as tactfully as possible. But the reality is marriage involves lots of issues that aren’t romantic, and dealing with such delicate matters up front could bring the two of you closer (or expose hidden red flags), regardless of whether an agreement is actually created or not.

Whatever you do, don’t wait to have the discussion until right before the ceremony. It’s not only extremely rude, but it could lead a court to invalidate an agreement put in place at the last minute as being created with undue pressure.

It might not be necessary: What a prenuptial agreement can cover depends on what kind of assets you have and where you live. Given this, existing divorce laws might already split your assets up in a way you think is fair. For example, in community-property states, the court will divide the property you and your spouse acquired during the marriage in an equal 50/50 split, while each spouse gets to keep his or her separate property. At North County Legal, we can talk about how the laws in your state apply to you and your particular asset profile.

It can’t resolve issues of child custody, support, or visitation: It’s important to note that prenups can’t address certain issues related to children and divorce. For example, though prenups can help ensure your children from a prior marriage are able to inherit assets you want to leave them, these agreements cannot be used to address child support, custody, or visitation rights. Those issues must be resolved by the court, so a prenup would be useless if that’s what you’re hoping to achieve.

It may require two lawyers to be valid: Prenuptial agreements may be invalidated if both parties are not represented by independent legal counsel. And depending on the lawyers you each work with, lawyers who are not well-experienced with counseling, care, and conflict resolution can inadvertently escalate or intensify conflicts, rather than supporting you and your future spouse to get on the same page.

Alternatives to the Prenup

If you plan ahead, certain estate planning vehicles can be used to protect your assets from divorce settlements and ensure that assets pass to your children from a prior marriage in the event of a divorce. There are different types of trusts, for instance, that can be set up to allow you to protect assets for yourself in the event of a divorce, and for your children in the event of your incapacity or death.

Revocable living trust created by you: By setting up a revocable living trust and funding it with your separate assets before getting married, those assets would likely be considered non-marital property and not subject to division by the court upon divorce—as long as you never commingle any of those assets with your spouse after your marriage. To ensure your separate property assets stay separate, it’s vital that you create and fund the trust with your assets before the marriage and never add any assets acquired or created during the marriage.

If you commingle assets acquired during the marriage in a trust containing your separate non-marital assets, a court could declare all of those assets as marital property subject to claim as part of a divorce settlement. To this end, a revocable trust only protects your separate assets from divorce if they remain separate from marital property throughout the whole length of your marriage.

You can also use a revocable living trust to provide for your surviving spouse and children from a previous marriage in the event of your death or incapacity. Unlike a will, assets held by a trust are not subject to the court process known as probate, so those assets would be immediately available to your spouse and kids, sparing your family the time, expense, and potential conflict of probate.

Note that since a revocable trust is “revocable” by definition, there is no asset protection for assets in your revocable trust, meaning that a revocable living trust will not protect your assets from creditors during your lifetime. If you want to achieve protection from both a future divorce and future creditors, you may want to consider one of the irrevocable trusts below.

Irrevocable trust created by your family: You can protect your assets from divorce by having your parents (or another loved one) establish an irrevocable trust for you before your marriage. Then, the Investment Trustee of the irrevocable trust (who could be you) could purchase all of your existing assets in an arms-length transaction and manage those assets inside of the trust, where they are totally protected from a future divorce and any future creditors.

Note that this strategy does require special provisions to ensure you cannot make distributions to yourself from the trust without the approval of an “independent trustee.” This trustee could be a best friend or a professional trustee, but cannot be anyone related or subordinate to you.

Your parents or grandparents could also leave any future inheritance you are to receive to this irrevocable trust, ensuring that your inheritance would also be protected. If this irrevocable trust is properly established and the terms are well-counseled and well-drafted, all assets the trust owns—and any assets left to you in the future—will be fully protected from a future divorce, future creditors, and even from estate taxes and probate upon your death. Yes, we like these trusts a lot.

Irrevocable trust created by you: It’s also possible for you to establish an irrevocable trust for yourself and gift your assets into the trust to keep them safe from divorce. However, this strategy is not as airtight as having a parent or grandparents establish the trust for you.

When you gift assets to an irrevocable trust, there’s a risk that a spouse or future creditor can claim fraudulent conveyance, if you gift those assets within a certain number of years (the exact time frame depends on the state) of the trust being set up. That said, if you are looking for asset protection and an alternative to a prenuptial agreement, and do not have a parent or grandparent available, a self-settled irrevocable trust can be a great second-best alternative.

Start Your Marriage Off Right

If you are getting ready to tie the knot and would like to ensure that assets you bring into the marriage don’t end up being lost in a future divorce settlement or are protected for your kids from a prior marriage, meet with us for trusted counsel and guidance on all of your options well before your marriage. Once you are married, many planning options are off the table.

Regardless of your concerns about divorce, you definitely need to create or update your estate plan to protect and provide for your soon-to-spouse and any children you have in the event of your death or incapacity. Schedule a consultation today to get this planning started.