"Prenups offer predictability and marriage is unpredictable," says divorce attorney and prenup expert Randall Kessler of Atlanta. "You're essentially trying to figure out what's going to happen, and where you'll be financially, when you get divorced."
For some people, a prenup is a no-brainer. "If you've been through a terrible divorce, you probably want one," says Kessler. "If you have children from a first marriage and want to protect them financially, or if your parents gave you a sum of money and you want to reassure them your partner won't run off with it, you probably want a prenup."
Start the Prenup Process -- Even If You Don't Finish It
The conversation about whether or not to have a prenup can be a good entry into a conversation about finances that every couple should have before tying the knot: Who will pay for what? Who will stay home with children? What if someone wants to go back to school? How much of our paychecks will we save for retirement? But too often, says Lisa Bahar, a family and marriage therapist from Dana Point, Calif., those conversations stop before they really get started.
"Money is emotional," she says. How we make it, how much we have, whether we're spenders or savers, how much debt we've taken on -- all of these subjects can be sensitive, which can easily lead people to avoid talking about them at all. So bringing in other people to help facilitate the conversation, whether clergy or financial professionals, can be helpful, she says.
Both Kessler and Bahar agree that the sooner a prenup is discussed, the better. "Don't wait until the day before the wedding," warns Kessler.
"For some people, [being asked] for a prenup is a sign that your partner doesn't trust you. For others, it gives added security. If you're someone who absolutely won't get married without one, it's best to have that conversation up front," says Bahar.
With or without a prenup, certain assumptions hold true in most cases: "[The idea that] what I acquired up to the date of marriage is mine and what you've acquired is yours is pretty common in most states," says Kessler.
The exception, of course, is in domestic partnerships or same-sex marriages: Much depends on the degree to which your state officially recognizes those relationships -- or doesn't. In such cases, sharing assets as business partners can help mitigate some of the financial issues, if not the emotional ones.
Even people without assets might want to consider a prenup if they expect they'll have them in the future. A struggling writer who finally sells a book, the lead singer of a garage band that gets a hit, or a college athlete drafted to the big leagues can see their financial live change overnight.
When 'Will You?' Leads to 'Let's Not.'
Some couples can't get past the prenuptial discussion, which can be a reason many people never start it. That, says Bahar, would be a mistake. "It can start a conflict prior to the actual marriage, so sometimes people avoid it to not disrupt it," she says. "You're dealing with very real, long-held emotional issues about trust, independence, and security passed down through generations. In some cases, working through these could delay the actual marriage."
Whether the ceremony is delayed or canceled, Kessler says it's better to find out if a couple is financially incompatible long before they ever have to sit in front of a divorce attorney. "If you're that incompatible," he says, "isn't it better to know before the wedding?"
However, while discussions about finances are indeed necessary for every couple about to tie the knot or take the next step, prenuptial agreements may not be. Couples with fairly equal income, wealth, and educational levels who come into the marriage with approximately the same worth shouldn't face too many issues should the marriage not last.
Beyond that, one other simple rule of thumb applies: "Who doesn't need a prenup are the people who don't have money and who won't have any money," Kessler says.