By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
A friend telephones me with the news: She and her husband are back together. Both are academics, and they've had a rocky few years. She came to Washington to pursue a dream of working on health-care policy. He was left in his university town. Her one-year fellowship turned into a five-year sabbatical. A commuter marriage, she said. Abandonment, he said. They were inching toward the edge of the divorce cliff.
Now they are starting over. They've settled their arguments over money. They've divided up some of their assets. They are maintaining two households but agree to try to spend no more than 10 days apart in a month. They are about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. "Deep down we really do love each other," she says. "If you once loved in a passionate way, you can reclaim that."
The news is the tool this 60-something couple used to reclaim their marriage: the post-nuptial agreement.
The post-nup is a contract signed during marriage to manage financial affairs and divide income and assets in the event of death or divorce. Unheard of 25 years ago, this mid-marriage document is gaining a foothold in American matrimonial culture. It was even featured on the television program "Boston Legal." In a recent survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 49 percent said they had seen an increase in post-nuptial agreements in the past five years.
Like its better-known cousin, the prenuptial agreement, the post-nup is responding to two demographic trends: the overall aging of the population and the increasingly common pattern of marriage, divorce and remarriage along with its complicated legacy of children from different relationships.
One purpose of the post-nup is estate planning. "That is a perfectly good reason to do it," says Jeff Atkinson, principal author of "The American Bar Association Guide to Marriage, Divorce & Families" (Random House, 2006). It is a way to direct retirement benefits to children of a previous marriage, or to an adult child with special needs. Or to make sure a beloved summer cabin stays in the family by making it separate from the couple's community property.
For my friends, the post-nup removed money as an issue in their marriage and allowed them to focus on their relationship.
To be sure, many couples fight about money -- one is a spendthrift, the other a saver. He buys a new car without consulting her. She resents the money going to college tuition for his children. And in late-life marriages, what's fair when one spouse earns more money than the other? A post-nup can give couples predictability and a sense of security about their financial future.
But using a post-nup to heal a troubled marriage is controversial.
"There are cases where that's advisable," says Gregg Herman, a family law attorney in Milwaukee. "But I only recommend it where there is an equal desire to stay married and work on the marriage." These are committed couples with "soft" problems of incompatibility, from struggling with retirement issues to coping with boredom. "Counseling and joint therapy are critical to these people," Herman says.
The post-nup is not recommended for couples who are confronting the "hard" problems: physical or mental abuse, infidelity, substance abuse. Nor for people who are really planning to break up and want to use the post-nup as a Trojan horse settlement in any future divorce battle.
Partners are rarely in the same place in a troubled relationship, and one spouse is often more committed to the marriage. The temptation is to use the post-nup as leverage to change behavior. For example, if one has a drinking problem or has had an affair but wants to preserve the marriage, the other makes staying together conditional on signing an agreement that says in effect: If you slip up again, you give up your rights -- you have to pay me a lot of money in support and I get the house, too! This kind of post-nup is really an ultimatum. Money becomes the glue of the marriage. As Herman says: "Money is rarely a good bond for keeping people together. People stay together because they love each other, not because of financial reasons."
States vary in how they view the legality of post-nup agreements. Spouses must fully disclose their income, assets and debts. They should each have legal representation -- and plenty of time to think about the terms so that neither is pressured to sign. And most important, the agreement has to be fair to both. Post-nups are held to a very high standard of fairness in financial matters, lawyers say, perhaps an even higher standard than are pre-nups.
These agreements are not about love. They can help couples deal with financial issues. But by itself, a post-nup cannot save a marriage.