The Hardest Part of Prenups

Before you can get to work negotiating the terms and writing up your prenuptial paperwork, you first have to clear a major hurdle: breaking the news to your partner. In fact, many clients tell me this conversation is the hardest part of the entire prenup process. It’s not uncommon for the non-initiating partner to feel insulted. Sometimes, they will flat-out refuse to sign. Other times, however, the negotiations go exceptionally well and the couple reports feeling closer than ever after the prenup is done.

Getting this conversation right is critical.

Even though prenups can have enormous benefit to both parties, they are often seen by the less wealthy partner as a slap in the face.

“Are you calling me a Gold Digger?”

“You don’t trust me?”

“Why are you already planning to get divorced?”

I’ve heard all of the arguments. And I’ve had to sit through some pretty heated negotiation sessions where one of the partners clearly wanted nothing to do with the process. It can get ugly really fast.

But it doesn’t have to.

Thankfully, there are some simple things you can do to make sure the initial conversation goes smoothly. I’ve coached hundreds of clients through this and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

The first thing to remember is that nobody likes being caught off-guard. It’s not a good idea to spring this on your partner out of the blue. That can make him or her feel trapped, cornered, misled, and confused. The last thing you want to do is get your partner highly emotional before you try to sit down and have a rational conversation about the rest of your lives.

That being said, it’s also not a good idea to plan the prenup talk well in advance when you aren’t sure what preconceived notions your spouse might have about prenups. If you say, “hey, can we have lunch next Thursday and talk about prenups?” your partner might spend the whole week fuming. Maybe he or she thinks of prenups as only for selfish people and will spend all week thinking about how terrible you are for even considering one. Of course, prenups aren’t selfish at all, they protect both parties equally (more on that later). But many people don’t know much about prenups other than what they’ve seen on sitcoms and romantic comedies, so it’s best to proceed with caution.

What I recommend is giving your partner a heads up that you want to have a serious talk about the future of your finances together. Encourage him or her to do some research on joint accounts and the economics of marriage before the meeting and to come prepared with an agenda of items to discuss. Don’t specifically mention prenups, but make it clear you want to talk about all aspects of your joint financial futures—starting with a budget for the wedding and going all the way through retirement. It’s best to plan to have this meeting somewhere that feels comfortable for both of you. And don’t do it over a meal. You want to be able to focus 100% on the topics at hand.

When the meeting begins, ask your partner what financial items he or she wants to make sure are on the agenda. Listen patiently and write down everything. It’s possible your spouse will mention prenups during this time and save you from having to bring it up. But if not, that’s fine too. Next, take out your own list of items, which it’s good to have written down prior to the meeting. Here’s a sample of what you could have on the agenda for this meeting:

Wedding budget

Joint bank account

Life insurance

Estate plan


Dual retirement

Add these items to the agenda you developed with your partner. Of course, you don’t have to use this exact list in this exact order. However, I think it’s very helpful to have “life insurance” and “estate plan” on the agenda before “prenup”. You’ll see why in a second. It’s also good to start off with a couple easy, or “softball” topics like saving for the wedding and opening a joint bank account. These serve as a warmup.

This should go without saying, but it’s important to have this conversation as early as possible. You want to talk about this well before the wedding because it might take you six months to get the prenup done and you don’t want it hanging over your heads as your special day looms closer and closer.

Life insurance and estate planning are ideal topics to cover prior to the prenup because the objective with these is to make sure that your partner would be properly taken care of in the event of your early death. Obviously you don’t hope to die, but it’s important to prepare for the remote possibility. Ask your partner what size of policy he or she thinks would make sense to take out. Explain that you’d like to have a will created too so you can relax knowing that he or she will be covered no matter what.

Once these are out of the way, it’s finally time to move on to the prenup. There are a few big mistakes people make when bringing up this topic. First, don’t ask your partner whether they would be OK with a prenup. You didn’t ask if they were OK with life insurance. It’s no different. It’s just responsible financial planning. Second, there’s no need to put your foot down or issue an ultimatum this early in the process. Saying something like, “If you won’t sign a prenup then the marriage is off” isn’t productive.

Try a transition like this:

“Just as the life insurance policy and estate plan will make sure you are taken care of in case I die, the prenup will cover us both in case of divorce. We can use it to spell out ahead of time that if I get into debt, for instance, you won’t be stuck paying off half of it. We can also make a plan for fair compensation if one of us decides to take time off to support the other in starting a business or getting a degree. Obviously neither of us is planning to die or get divorced but it would be foolish not to take precautions.”

Keep in mind that the point of this first talk is just to introduce these issues and get agreement from your spouse on next steps. When it comes to life insurance, that might mean scheduling a session with an agent. For an estate plan, the best person to meet with would be a lawyer. And for prenups I recommend hiring an experienced mediator. This person will sit down with the two of you and help you produce a plan that is in both of your best interests.

To end the conversation, give your spouse a small choice. For instance, “Do you want to look for a good prenup mediator or would you like me to find someone?” In sales this is called an Assumptive Close because your question assumes that your spouse is OK with getting a prenup. It’s much more effective than asking, “Does that sound OK with you?” which opens the door for them to object.

Most of the time if your partner is truly in love with you (and not just with your money) then he or she should have no reason to resist meeting with a mediator about a prenup. However, in some cases this conversation might trigger a defensive reaction. Your spouse may have heard negative things about prenups in the past and be shocked that you’re suggesting one. If this is the case, it’s important to avoid an argument. The best way to do this is to make sure your partner feels completely heard and listened to before you explain your side of the issue. Keep your body language relaxed and open and ask your spouse to explain what worries him or her about a prenup. Nod your head and repeat back what your partner says, asking whether you’ve got it right.

Once you’ve heard everything that your partner dislikes about the idea of a prenup, it’s time to share your own side of the story. There are a few different options here. For men, you can bring up the inequities in the family court system. Studies show that women receive 93% of all alimony awards and five out of every six primary child custody arrangements. Divorce is much costlier for men on many levels. “I trust you to be fair during a divorce,” you can say, “but I don’t trust the family court system. I would like to get some agreements laid out in writing so I feel safe.”

For women, you can say, “I would like to have kids and I’m aware the burdens of child rearing tend to fall disproportionately on women. Before I invest all that time and energy into building a family I’d like to have a financial plan in place, just in case.”

Partners of either sex can also reference inheritance and business equity as reasons for wanting a prenup too.

Importantly, don’t blame it on someone else.

“My lawyer recommended this.”

“It’s something my parents want.”

“My brother said it’s really important.”

These are cop-outs. It’s far better to take responsibility for wanting a prenup yourself and be honest with your spouse about why it’s important to you. If he or she refuses to even attend a session with a mediator, maybe the two of you aren’t such a great match after all. It’s probably a good thing you found out well before the wedding…