First comes love, then comes marriage, then, in about seven years, comes a messy divorce. The likelihood of breaking up -- nearly half of all marriages don't last -- is bringing increasing prominence to the premarital agreement, where the couple decides before they've wed exactly what will belong to who after they're not.

A second marriage used to be called the triumph of hope over experience. A premarital agreement is exactly the opposite. You forget that you're in love and want to spend the rest of your life waking up next to this person. Instead, you take a hardnosed attitude and cut the best deal you can. It's sort of like divorce, although you're not even married yet.

"It's simple. Since time immemorial, when people have decided to get married, they have always talked over things and tacitly agreed on them," says Joan Wikstrom, a Northern Virginia private counselor and a part-time professor of personnel management at Catholic University.

"An informal prenuptial agreement is just going a step beyond -- and to write it down and have it legalized, witnessed and all the rest of it, is a step beyond that ... It comes under look before you leap, and is a really good way of ensuring extensive ongoing communication."

Since these agreements are generally private matters among the spouses and their respective lawyers, they are not filed with the local courthouse. As a result, it's hard to say exactly how many newlyweds are using them -- but the count is definitely up. Most experts believe the percentage of weddings that come with some form of contract has risen in the past decade from under 1 percent to between 2 and 3 percent.

"It's something that will increase. In a number of different situations, it makes sense," says James McConville, a D.C. family probate and general litigation lawyer. "It used to be something done only when there was a lot of money. Now there doesn't have to be a huge sum, but a need to take care of children from a previous marriage."

And, since these contracts are also a seasonal phenomenon, they're reaching a peak right now.

"Come May and June, the phone rings off the hook," says Marna Tucker of the D.C. law firm of Klores, Feldesman and Tucker. "That's when most prenuptial agreements certainly get signed -- even if they're negotiated earlier."

A typical contract used by a previously divorced couple might run something like this: She's 38, he's 40. Each has a small savings account, a pension plan and children from a previous marriage. He sells his old house, and puts up $80,000 of the down-payment on the new mansion. She forks over $25,000 of her own for the house. They agree that on their deaths or the death of their marriage, that proportion will be recognized. So they call the lawyers and put it in writing.

This is especially likely to happen if one or both spouses had a protracted or expensive divorce the first time. "To somebody who spent $20,000 litigating a divorce," says Tucker, "it's well worth it to spend $1,000 for a prenuptial agreement the next time around."

Not everyone agrees. If someone gives you a box of chocolates, you're probably going to eat them -- no matter how fattening or sugary they are. Likewise with a premarital contract, say the cynics: they tend to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want one, subconsciously you must know you're going to use it.

Nonsense, says Joseph Zwack, a Dubuque, Iowa, lawyer who wrote Premarital Agreements (Harper & Row, $7.95). "A talk about finances is kind of like a parent's talk to their children about the birds and the bees. You might as well face up to it, get it over with and go on to other things.

"The man should not feel that he's going to be bothering the pretty little lady's head about finances. And the woman shouldn't feel that her husband's ego is too sensitive to talk about money. I've found people who put off the financial talk before remarriages are doomed to have a lot of financial talks and arguments afterwards."

Aside from the once-burned, premarital agreements are also increasingly used by two other groups:

Couples marrying for the first time in their mid- to late-thirties, and who already have sizable estates powered by a dozen years of earning.

Widows and widowers. "They're living longer, and are financially independent. Parents used to live with their children when their spouse died. Now they want companionship of the opposite sex, and they don't want their finances entangled," says Zwack.

With older couples, the contract is often in the form of a "complete mutual release" contract, where each spouse gives up all rights to the other's assets. For younger people, the agreement is often much more complex -- as is the negotiating.

A lawyer will try to protect his client's interests by telling him dire things the other spouse could possibly do, says attorney Tucker. "And yet when you tell them these things, you're talking about the person they love and want to marry.

"They don't want to hear it. That's what makes it so difficult. You have to assure your client's interests but also make sure no one is offended. It is a business proceeding -- and sometimes an adversarial one -- in the framework of a romantic relationship."

Yet attorney McConville adds that "in some ways, {a contract} is a good sign, because there's a disclosure of what everyone has. I'm constantly amazed at the number of people out there who just don't know what their spouse earns."

In her counseling business, Wikstrom has seen more couples before a first marriage than before a second. Their discussions don't often result in the type of agreement that requires a lawyer. "They're the very careful people. If you and I say, 'Hey, let's get married,' we will have, in essence, a prenuptial agreement -- that we will get married, and will have talked about what your role will be and what my role will be.

"In the more formalized area, you can write down what each of our responsibilities will be at any given point in time -- you're going to wash the dishes, and I'll clean the house. Those are trivial, but then there's 'the first 10 years I'll raise the children, and then we switch, and you'll be the househusband.' The prenuptial agreement can touch on any aspect of the relationship, not just monetary ones."

Regardless of the exact scope of their agreement, couples generally don't discuss it with outsiders, their lawyers report. "Some people feel funny about it -- that they negotiate with their spouses," says Tucker. "There's some discomfort."

Another reason for the reluctance to talk is the stereotype that premarital contracts reinforce inequity -- that the poor wife is essentially coerced into signing away any rights to her husband's fortune. Zwack feels this is a misapprehension.

"Of the agreements I've drawn up, about half involve a wealthier woman than man," he says. Furthermore, "the wealthier person, whether man or woman, is usually trying to protect someone -- usually children of the first marriage. If we're talking about public policy -- whom we should protect -- there's a pretty strong argument to provide for one's own children, and after that make adequate provision for a new spouse."

Many people execute a premarital agreement with the wish that the marriage will work out, he adds. If that happens, they can terminate or amend the agreement. But if the union fails to survive, at least they've protected themselves. (Incidentally, the 48-year-old Zwack doesn't have a premarital agreement himself. "I didn't have any money" when he got married 24 years ago, he says. "Neither did my wife.")

Finally, Zwack points out that these contracts are not always all-or-nothing propositions -- where you come in with your own property, have no claims during the marriage, and leave with your own property. Younger people, especially, will still pool all income and property accumulated during the marriage. And there's another common set-up: The parties agree to each keep their previous assets, but the wealthier spouse will take out a $250,000 life insurance policy, of which the other is the beneficiary.

The inequity issue is scrutinized very closely by courts whenever a premarital contract is challenged. "Judges want to make sure it's an arm's-length contract," says Tucker. "In D.C., each side must be represented by counsel {when a contract is first written}, and there cannot be the same counsel. Each side has different interests."

"Was it done fairly, with full disclosure, both sides having attorneys -- those questions move to the forefront" from a court's point of view, says McConville. "If it's down in writing, it's cleaner." Which is not to say that these contracts are frequently contested. "You do an agreement that gets signed, and then you close the file. For the most part, I haven't heard from the people once I've done it."

The couples themselves should review their contract periodically, the lawyers suggest. Think of it as a living will, adds counselor Wikstrom. "In principle, it's much the same. Because life goes on and situations change, every now and then you're going to go back and see if you both feel that way."

In McConville's experience, a premarital agreement either happens quickly, or the pair gives up on getting hitched. "A couple times," he says, "it becomes too convoluted, and the marriage doesn't happen. Or they go back and forth, and say, 'Hey, we don't need this, let's just get married.' "

Tucker also has seen cases where focusing on the agreement has prevented people from tying the knot. In a way, she believes, having to write an agreement was a kind of test, one these prospective brides and bridegrooms flunked. That doesn't bother this lawyer: They shouldn't get married, she says, "if they can't deal with certain basic problems."