Prenuptial agreements are on the rise – so why do they still feel taboo?

As Olivia* was picking her wedding dress, she and her partner Leo were also discussing divorce.

Despite being in love and ready to commit, having a prenup, they both agreed, was simply the sensible thing to do when starting married life.

“You go into it with love and hope for the future,” Olivia says. “But also realism.”

They are not alone. Once the preserve of Hollywood celebs and the super-rich, prenuptial agreements are on the rise among “normal” people too, with legal and marriage experts saying numbers have increased dramatically in recent years; around one in five weddings in the UK now involves some form of legal agreement, according to several polls.

Olivia and Leo got engaged last year after meeting on a dating app. Olivia, in her early 40s, is a business founder and Leo, who is in his late 30s, now works for her company. He was the one to initially broach the subject of a prenup.

“I didn’t want to at first as it doesn’t feel very romantic,” says Olivia. “It kind of puts a dampener on things – you’re at this really happy stage of getting married and then you’re potentially talking about, what happens if we split?”

Both have children from previous marriages, both have been through divorce. They decided a prenup was the right thing to do. Now, just a few weeks after their honeymoon, they are happily reminiscing through their wedding day photos; the prenup filed away, no longer a talking point, but there should they ever need it.

Image: Experts say it is not just about protecting money, but about property and other assets, too

“It didn’t feel right that if something was to happen in the future, I could just have what she had built with her business,” says Leo. “I wanted to make the decision from my heart and do what’s right and to focus on building shared assets together.”

“Both of us had amicable divorces,” Olivia adds. “But we know what can happen. It’s reality, and I think life is more complex these days.”

The law on prenups in the UK

A prenuptial or premarital agreement is one made before a couple marries or enters into a civil partnership, setting out how they wish assets to be divided in the event of a split. They are not automatically enforceable in England and Wales, but following a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, courts now take them into account as long as they have been made in good faith.

They have long been commonplace for celebrities: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly had one, as apparently did Britney Spears and Sam Asghari. Catherine Zeta Jones reportedly told Vanity Fair back in 2000, the year she married Michael Douglas, that she thinks prenups are “brilliant”. And over the past few years, they have filtered into the real world, too.

Co-op Legal Services says prenup sales in 2023 were up by 60% on 2022, as were cohabitation agreements – and that postnup agreements almost trebled (an increase of almost 185%) in the same period. It says 21% of married people in Britain, or one in five couples, now have some form of an agreement in place, tallying with research published by marriage advocate charity the Marriage Foundation in 2021.

Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in the UK. Pic: iStock/Sky News

The average value of the assets included in Co-op prenups sits between £500,000 and £600,000, it says. Family law firm OLS Solicitors also reports a big increase in requests – a rise of 60% between 2021 and 2023, with a further 26% increase in the first quarter of 2024 compared with the same period last year.

Experts put the rise down to a number of factors: women earning more; more people remarrying and going into partnerships with children; the internet increasing savviness and accessibility when it comes to the law. Millennials and younger generations are also generally getting married later in life than their parents, therefore accruing more assets individually ahead of the milestone.

Plus, these generations have grown up experiencing divorce between mums and dads or other people close to them, in a way that was far less common for their parents and grandparents.

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‘Break-up talk isn’t romantic – neither is death, but we make a will’

Despite the rising number of couples choosing this route, it seems few are comfortable talking about it publicly. The idea of a prenup being “unromantic” still prevails.

Olivia and Leo did not want to give their real names, saying they did not feel ready to share the details with the world. They arranged their prenup through Wenup, an online platform aiming to make couples’ deals more accessible and affordable, launched in the UK in 2023 in response to the increasing demand.

“Prenups are considered taboo, unromantic and are something very private to most people,” says Wenup co-founder James Brookner.

“This is changing for younger generations who have a more open, pragmatic and non-traditional view of marriage, but for many people, thinking about what will happen if they break up in the lead-up to a wedding is a difficult enough conversation to have in private, let alone public.”

Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in the UK. Pic: iStock/Sky News
Image: Couples who have children from previous relationships are among those seeking more security to protect their assets

Nicole*, who moved from the UK to New Zealand several years ago and married her husband, Will, after three years together in 2019, says they discussed getting a prenup – or contracting out agreement, as they are known there – before she moved in with him, six months into their relationship.

“[He] raised the idea because he had worked hard to buy his first house and wanted to ensure he retained his rights to ownership should our relationship break down,” Nicole says.

The 38-year-old admits she was “caught a bit off guard” when he first broached the subject, but due to the law in the country – the Property Relationships Act, which means any individually owned property is shared equally in the event of a break-up after three years of a couple living together, regardless of marriage – it felt like the right thing to do.

They reached an agreement they were both happy with and Will, 42, covered legal costs as they had to have independent advice. The couple now have a young daughter and are happily married – and for this, you have to balance romance and practicality, says Nicole.

“Talking about breaking up isn’t romantic – nor is talking about death, but we all have to write a will at some stage. I think the reluctance is often because one party is trying to protect assets from the other, with no ill intent usually, but I can see why the other party may feel a little despondent about the suggestion if they don’t understand the law.

“Personally, I have seen too many nasty break-ups that could have been a lot cleaner had the proper agreements been in place at the outset.”

What do prenups cover?

Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in the UK. Pic: iStock/Sky News

While couples in the UK might not be showing them off along with their engagement pics, attitudes are changing privately. A YouGov poll in 2023 found that 42% of British people consider prenups a good idea, compared with 13% who consider them a bad idea. A similar poll on prenups 10 years earlier found that 35% would sign a prenup if asked to, with 36% saying they would not.

Family law solicitor Tracey Moloney, who is known as The Legal Queen online – with more than a million followers across her TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube accounts – says social media has made legal advice more accessible.

Up to about five years ago she would probably get one prenuptial request a year, if that. Now, she averages about one a week, taking cohabitation agreements for unmarried couples into consideration as well. She says she would always advise couples to have one.

“I think any family lawyer is going to say that because we see so many divorces. We’re realists. I think people can forget that when you say ‘I do’, you are entering into a contractual relationship anyway… financial ties exist because your marriage has created a binding contract. If you’re going to go into a contract in any other scenario – buying a property, buying shares in a company – you’re going to take advice. I don’t think marriage should be seen any differently.”

Prenups can cover anything from money to property to assets – including future assets such as expected inheritance – whether they are worth millions or simply of sentimental value, she points out, citing a recent agreement drawn up to protect an antique writing desk. It was “really dear to that person, passed down from generation to generation”, but of no real monetary value.

Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in the UK. Pic: iStock/Sky News
Image: Prenups used to be associated with the rich and famous, but are becoming more mainstream

At the other end of the scale, she recalls one divorce after a long marriage which didn’t involve a prenup; the wife had inherited jewellery worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. “It was never intended to be sold but it had significant value and it was added to her side of the balance sheet. She kept the jewellery but as a result, the ex kept a lot more of his pension, which she was entitled to. If she’d had a prenup, it could have been ring-fenced.”

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Michelle Elman, a TV life coach and author known as Queen Of Boundaries, says when it comes to prenups she encourages any conversations about finance early on in a relationship.

“It’s hard to say, black or white, whether prenups are good or bad as it depends on the couple,” she says. “Some people might think a prenup is going into a marriage with bad faith, but if you’re going into the marriage with more certainty and clarity because you have it, then that’s best for you.

“The unhealthy option is not going into a prenup because you’re scared to have the conversation. I think for any healthy marriage to survive, you need to have already spoken about money before you get married, whether it’s because of a prenup or not.”

From proposal to prenup

Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in the UK. Pic: iStock

Harry Benson, research director for the Marriage Foundation, says he was surprised at the results of the charity’s survey findings. “I thought this was something we would only find among the very richest people,” he says.

The 20% having some form of agreement applied to those married since 2000, compared with just 1.5% who were married in the 1970s, 5% in the 1980s and 8% in the 1990s. The charity’s poll did find higher earners were more likely to have prenups; higher earning women in particular. In terms of education, the findings were the other way round.

Mr Benson says he personally finds the idea of “dividing up the spoils before you even get started” as “deeply” unromantic. “Divorce law, broadly speaking, protects people,” he says. “For the vast majority, there’s not an awful lot of point to getting them. And of course, there is the risk that you make the proposal, down on one knee, and then say, ‘please sign my prenup’. The response? ‘Get stuffed! Are you the type of person I want to marry?'”

However, he says the research found no link to divorce rates – that having a prenup did not make it more or less likely that a couple would go on to break up.

“It’s not for me, but it is for some people,” he says. “I can see why people do it and I can certainly see the benefits for some… I just personally find them a bit oxymoronic.”

But the idea of the prenup being unromantic is definitely changing. Wenup says making the process more equitable and open means they are seeing the shift firsthand, with customers who don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of rich wealth protectors.

“If you’re not sure you need one, you probably need one,” says the Legal Queen. “They’re a bit like insurance – you hope you never have to claim on it, but it’s there to protect you if you do.”

*Names have been changed

Source : Sky News