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Understanding Prenuptial Agreements

Understanding Prenuptial Agreements

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

When we hear the words “prenuptial agreement” or “prenup,” most of us think of wealth, celebrities, or even unreasonable demands we’ve seen in the movies. Prenuptial Agreements have had the misfortune of being seen as unromantic, fatalist, and unseemly. However, a prenuptial agreement – or a contract entered into before marriage that outlines the rights and obligations of both spouses in the event of divorce – can prove to be useful for individuals in a variety of financial circumstances.

Many clients wonder, “Why do I need to know about a prenuptial agreement now that I’m going through a divorce?” The answer is simple: A prenuptial agreement can help you reduce conflict in a future relationship and can serve as valuable financial planning tool.

You may be aware that Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code provides for a process, called equitable distribution, by which marital property is divided. In addition, our divorce and support laws provide for support remedies such as alimony pendente lite and alimony in the event of divorce. In the absence of a prenuptial agreement, these laws largely govern what happens to your finances in the event of divorce. Unsurprisingly, many of us are not too keen about how these laws are applied to our lives. A prenuptial agreement can help you predetermine how your financial circumstances will be resolved in the event of divorce.

A prenuptial agreement can assist you with:

  • Financial Planning – A prenuptial agreement is a vehicle by which you and your future spouse can determine for yourselves what kind of property is and will remain separate, and what kind of property, if any, will be marital. It also permits the spouses to designate whether income earned during the marriage remains the separate property of the person who earned it, whether and to what extent retirement accounts may be marital, and who gets what in the event of divorce. By clearly establishing these understandings prior to the marriage, you may be able to better gauge what your financial picture may look like upon divorce.
  • Estate Planning – A prenuptial agreement can be a critical estate planning tool, particularly if you have children from a previous relationship. Designating your spouse’s ability to inherit from your estate, and to what extent, can help you provide for your spouse, children from a previous relationship, and/or other family in your desired manner.
  • Debt Allocation – In a divorce action, the court will distribute and divide marital debts in addition to marital property. Many clients are frustrated by the idea that they must assume a portion of marital debts that may have been incurred solely by the other spouse. A prenuptial agreement can be an effective way of shielding you from debts incurred by the other spouse during marriage.
  • Support – Our support law provides for alimony during and after the pendency of a divorce, with factors and guidelines that often prescribe how income and support are calculated. A prenuptial agreement allows individuals the freedom to determine some of these support issues for themselves. However, it should be noted that issues of child support and child custody are not binding and are always modifiable.

Preparing for Your Family Law Matter

Preparing for Your Family Law Matter

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

We know that initiating a family law matter is generally a last resort for our clients. The process is often stressful, emotionally wrought, and can be costly. However, when the last resort becomes the only option, preparing in advance can be helpful. Being prepared can make an otherwise seemingly-daunting process a little less so. Here are some things you can do to prepare for your family law matter:

  1. Create your own "case file." Mastering the nuances of your own circumstances is a crucial first step in preparing for a family law matter. Create a chronology of events and/or a list of important facts. Create a record of important family circumstances and/or points to discuss with your attorneys. You are a wealth of information about financial, logistical, and historical aspects of your family. Maintaining a list of important points, conversations, schedules, locations, transactions, events, and/or other information will help you remain organized and will ensure that your attorney is aware of the complete picture.
  2. Gather your paperwork. Our clients are often unaware of many aspects of their financials and/or familial circumstances. When this is the case, family law litigation (whether divorce, custody or support) and the rigors of providing "evidence" to the court are often overwhelming and difficult. Thinking (and preparing!) ahead can help keep the process manageable. If you are preparing for a divorce matter, make sure to gather a copy of current bank, retirement, credit card, and/or mortgage statements. Gathering documentation regarding the property owned by you or your spouse is crucial to any divorce matter. If you are preparing for a support matter, gather complete copies of your tax returns, W-2s and 1099s, pay stubs, and/or employment benefits. If your believe you will be a litigant in a child support matter, make a list of the activities in which your child participates and gather documents (such as invoices, receipts, payment confirmation, etc.) evidencing the cost of those activities. In custody matters, preparing information about your child can be crucial. If you have specific concerns about your child or your child requires extra considerations (such as in the case of special needs children, kids with health needs, and/or educational and therapeutic needs), collect as much information as you can about the issue. Past and current report cards and school records can also be helpful in custody matters. 
  3. Understand your financial situation. Once you gather all the necessary paperwork, it is helpful to get a sense of your assets versus your debts. It is important to understand the nature of your finances and keep looming expenses in mind. Understand when bills are due, whether deadlines for any important decisions are coming up, and/or whether financial changes are on the horizon. Understanding your finances can assist you in deciding when and how to initiate your family law matter.
  4. Figure out your living expenses....now and after the start of a case. One of the most important planning tools for our clients is a monthly budget. Understanding the carrying costs of your life under your current circumstance, as well as how they might change when you initiate a family law matter, is essential. For example, your attorney may ask you whether you can afford to stay in the family home or whether you can afford to move out. The fear of being unable to maintain living expenses can be one of the most distressing aspects of litigation. It is therefore important to consider how income is currently being used and what changes can/should be made if the need arises. 
  5. Don't make any sudden moves. If you believe litigation is on the horizon, making big purchases and/or changes can have a negative impact on your future case. Preserving the status quo will give you an opportunity to discuss any possible changes with your attorney to determine the viability and advisability of the decision. For example, avoid purchasing a new car or new home if you are contemplating a divorce. If you believe a support matter is in your future, discuss any possible changes in your employment and/or income with an attorney before committing to the change. In custody matters, changing your child's residence, school, medical providers, etc. can be detrimental to your future case. In short, check in with your lawyer before making a big decision.