Doctors and Marriage: Should You Have a Prenup?

Dennis G. Murray, MA

Disclosures

April 19, 2017

In This Article

Young Doctors, First Marriage

If this is your first marriage and you're not bringing a lot of debt or assets to the union, you may not need a prenuptial agreement, experts say. But for everyone else, including a doctor who has recently started or is thinking of starting his or her own practice, a prenup could make sense, especially since the stigma around them is starting to fade (albeit slowly).

"Prenuptial agreements are becoming more generally accepted as an effective way to protect assets. They're no longer limited to a specific gender or age group," says Marlene Eskind Moses, a past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and a principal with MTR Family Law, in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, a 2010 survey of AAML members revealed that women are becoming more likely than men to initiate a request for a prenup and that the overall number of prenups is on the rise.

Part of the reason, experts say, is that people are waiting longer to get married, meaning they may have more assets -- and big debts, such as credit card balances, mortgages, and student loans -- to bring to the union than couples who wed when they're much younger. A prenup can help you preserve those assets (or sidestep those debts) in the event of a divorce.

Same-sex couples may also benefit from a prenup, even if their state doesn't legally recognize the union. That's because prenuptial agreements are general legal contracts, which, like any contract, any 2 parties are free to enter into.

Laws Vary by State

Moreover, without a prenuptial agreement, you could be subject to the laws in your state -- at least 9 of which require a straight 50-50 split of assets accumulated during the marriage, as Steven Spielberg discovered in California. Spielberg and his first wife, actress Amy Irving, didn't have a legally enforceable prenup -- it was written on a cocktail napkin (yes, a cocktail napkin) and there were no witnesses -- so Spielberg was forced to cough up one half of his net worth (a whopping $100 million) when they divorced after 4 years of marriage.

In all others states (with the exception of Alaska, which is a mixed bag), a judge will consider what's fair in the absence of a prenup, on the basis of such factors as the couple's ages, the length of the marriage, the number of kids involved, and the role of each spouse in building household wealth. A wife who supported her husband financially as he went through medical school, for instance, may be entitled to a much more generous settlement because of the sacrifices she made while he pursued his dream.

"Sometimes the very reason for a prenup is to protect the non-monied spouse," says Ginita Wall, a financial planner in San Diego, California; coauthor of the book ABCs of Divorce for Women; and cofounder of the Women's Institute for Financial Education, a nonprofit dedicated to improving women's knowledge of finances. "We had a client who made $4000 to $5000 a month selling real estate, and she wanted to be compensated for that lost income if she agreed to marry him and become a stay-at-home mom.

"When the couple broke up some 20 years later, she received all of that lost income as part of her divorce settlement, thanks to the prenup. She took some of that money and used it to help her daughter pay for college."

Although we've discussed tangible assets to this point, prenuptial agreements can also be used to hammer out lifestyle issues, including what religion any future children will be raised in and whether they'll attend public or private schools. (Custody and child support issues are determined separately by the courts, so they can't be added to a prenup.)

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