Writing recently for the New York Times, author Matt Richtel in an article entitled, ” Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part”, mused about whether setting an expiration date for marriage might be the best way to address new attitudes about marriage — those that render it expendable depending on circumstances.
Richtel, who writes most often about technology, makes his case for a twenty-year contract with tongue in cheek but does make the serious point that no real mechanism exists, short of prenuptial contracts, to mitigate the drama and stress of divorces that happen at statistically predictable stages of marriage.
Richtel implies that making marriage contracts renewable might have the double advantage of lessening the stigma of divorce where it proves inevitable, and, conversely, of raising the consciousness of couples whose marriages will grow stronger if re-examined and effectively re-negotiated at intervals that coincide with marriages’ biggest stressors. Various experts cited in the article suggest that these milestones involve the birth of a child, a job change, the death of a family member, or when the couple finds themselves living in an empty nest. While most of these events are unpredictable, others are not. Generally, for example, empty-nest syndrome shows up at roughly the twenty-year mark. The president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Kenneth Altshuler, quoted in the article, noted that, in his own practice, divorces seem to cluster around the 7 and 20 year marks. As it turns out, the seven year itch may be more than a movie title.
None of this is to suggest seriously that renewable marriage contracts are really ripe for serious thought given the tenor current political dialogue on the overall issue of marriage. Instead, however, Richtel’s article makes us think more seriously about what should be done at the beginning of a marriage to lessen the trauma and bitter discord that so often characterizes the end.
True, prenuptial agreements do put a temporary crimp in the image of unsullied romance that we expect to survive from the first date to the end of the honeymoon. (Although anyone who has ever planned a large wedding knows that only a strong dose of denial can keep that illusion alive.)
On the other hand, at what other point in a relationship will a frank and, mercifully, hypothetical discussion about the practical issue of divorce take a lesser toll on a couple’s relationship? Balance this against the angst that the couple will suffer if their marriage is among the half that end in divorce and at a time when love and goodwill are no longer the most important underpinnings of the negotiations. Once that comparison is made, the only remaining question is what will better serve the couple and their future children — betting everything that they will beat the odds, or promising from the start to do the right thing in the unexpected event that they won’t?
According to a recent article published in USA Today, a study of over 7000 individuals conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University found that 79% of marital separations end in divorce.
The study found that the average length of separations that resulted in reconciliation was two years, while the average of those ending in divorce was three years. Surprisingly, the chances of reconciliation virtually disappeared among this group beyond the three-year mark. While many couples who lived apart for three or more years eventually divorced, others simply continued the separation indefinitely.
The study found that women with children under 5 years old were more likely to separate from their husbands rather than to divorce immediately.
All of this means that a great number of couples either delay or forego altogether the protection of laws designed to shield them financially in the event their marriage comes apart. These include laws governing the division of marital assets as well as laws regarding spousal and child support.
In a relatively new trend, some couples seriously contemplating trial separation begin the experiment by negotiating a formal post-marital agreement that sets out their respective financial obligations while still legally married and also in the event of an eventual divorce. In this way, they are able to enter into a trial separation — or in some cases even continue living under the same roof — with the security of an agreed-upon set of rules. This provides each of them with a degree of certainty about their financial future that would not otherwise be possible absent divorce litigation. With financial issues resolved, they are better able to understand the choices they face and to focus on other issues in their relationship.
Just like prenuptial agreements, post-marital agreements must meet certain standards in order to be enforceable. These standards are governed by the laws of individual states, but certain features are universal. First, they must be accompanied by full mutual disclosure of financial information. Second, they must be entered into voluntarily and both parties must have had at least the opportunity to have the agreement reviewed by independent counsel. All courts reserve the right to review both prenuptial agreements and post-marital agreements for fairness, but, provided there are no egregious flaws in the contract, courts generally support and enforce them as a matter of public policy.
Impending separation is not the only reason to consider a post-marital agreement. Events such as the birth of a child, a return to school, or the launch of a business can be good reason for couples to consider adding a post-marital agreement to their financial plan.