Prenups Rule, Divorce Drools: How Millennials Are Killing The Marriage Game

Photographed by Winnie Au.

Adam Driver’s character in Marriage Story probably wouldn’t have punched a wall if he’d just gotten a prenup. “THERE’S SO MUCH I DIDN’T DO!” he screams during the emotional scene. You know, like getting a prenup. Whether it’s talking about which celebrities didn’t get one or a dramatic arc on 90 Day Fiancé, signing this contract is the big brain move among millennials these days. But these aren’t your parents’ prenups.

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Some people still hold the view that a prenup is only for wealthy people (usually men) protecting themselves from a gold-digging spouse (usually a woman). But this just isn’t true. Despite Kanye’s famous verse, it was reportedly Kim who asked for a prenup. And the idea is more a myth now than ever, when plenty of young people are getting prenups not for their wealth, but for their debt.

The most pervasive argument against prenups is that wanting one signals a lack of commitment. As we saw in our last discussion of millennial prenups, often the pushback comes from our family, with one woman saying that if her family knew, they would be “afraid for our marriage.” Though hard numbers on exactly how many people get prenups are hard to come by, a commonly cited 2016 survey of matrimonial lawyers found that 51% of them have noted an increase in millennials seeking prenups.

But we’re not the ones ending marriages at shocking rates. Divorce practically went viral in the ’70s and ’80s, but hit a 40-year low in 2017. We look at marriage differently — we're not just doing it later or not at all, but because we see it as an option, we’re being more selective about who we marry, as noted by both researchers and internet anthropologists:

“The number of prenups that couples are signing are on the rise because our generation saw our parents get divorced,” posits Aditi Shekar, a relationship finance expert and the founder of a finance app for couples called Zeta. She says she laughs at the idea of a prenup being an out for marriage. “We all get health insurance, right? We’re not planning to get hurt.”

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Hardly surprising that our ruinous generation has not only brought back the prenup but is doing them differently. So why are millennials getting prenups these days? Shekar shares some of the latest trends, and why they've become relevant to young people today.

Prenups for Debt

“People always think it’s for rich people because they think, ‘Oh, if you have assets coming into a relationship, you need to discuss those. But I would say it’s also liabilities,” says Shekar. “A lot of us are coming into our relationships with significant debt, right?”  Prenups can make sure both parties are aware of the extent of debt each has, and create a plan for how to manage that debt, or what will happen if one spouse takes on more debt throughout the marriage.

"One of the most interesting stories that we hear about on the couple's finance side is when couples break up, the woman or the man may find out that their partner has taken out a loan in their name, or the partner could have taken out the loan in their own name," says Shekar. "But because of the way marriage law works, you still own half of that debt, right? So one of the ways that a prenup can really protect you is to make sure to say any debt that we take out on our own is our debt alone. Any debt we take out together, i.e. we've both co-signed the loan, we own together. So it creates a little bit of guaranteed transparency in that process."

Prenups For Future Money

“And the other thing that I tend to encourage folks to think about is, who earns what is going to change over a lifetime. And especially when you’re a woman, you’re like, ‘Oh, but I earn the same as my husband. I’m not worried about it.’ Well, what happens if you decide to spend two years at home with your child because that’s what you want to do?”

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While married men have higher wages than single men, tying the knot has the opposite effect for women, even if you don’t have children. Women tend to come out worse financially than men do in case of divorce, too — all of which might explain why divorce attorneys have noted an increase in women asking for prenups. 

“Anecdotally, I think what I’ve seen is a lot more women saying, ‘My dad asked my mom for a prenup and it upset her, but I’m not going to be upset about it,’” says Shekar. She also notes that the increase in prenups is in part being spearheaded by same-sex couples, who have a special understanding of why legal protections around marriage are so important. 

Prenups for Pets (& Even Embryos)

Looking at how prenups have changed, we see not just what can really be stipulated in a marriage, but how love and money intersect for our generation. One consequence of modern love is the pet-nup. “The pet-nup covers everything from who would get the dog if we broke up to who would pay for their bills and get their care,” says Shekar. The subject of how to deal with your beloved pets plagues many ex-couples undergoing divorce proceedings.

And when millennials do decide to raise human babies together, that can come with its own complications about who owns or pays for what. “A lot of couples, especially in our generation, are choosing to have kids later in life, which means that they might need help getting pregnant,” says Shekar. The popularity of IVF has brought up a legal gray area: If frozen embryos are an asset, who owns them when the marriage dissolves? It’s a reality that’s led to some couples anticipating the issue in their prenups.

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Money arguments are the number one predictor of divorce. Going through the process of drawing up a prenup throws the two of you into detailed money conversations that you might not think to have until the tenth year of your marriage, if you make it that far.

As a pet owner, Shekar says that she and her husband had their own deep conversation about what they would put in a pet-nup. “But we never signed anything,” she says. In fact, the signing was the least important part for her. “I care less about the legality of it, even though that is important. I think that the process of it alone brings you closer as a couple, if done well and done right.”

With each question about how to approach student loans if one spouse decides to go back to school, or how to split your future cat’s vet bills, what you’re really doing is imagining up years and even decades of married life. It’s often an intimate process, requiring uncommon vulnerability, honesty, and communication. Legally, a prenup is there in case you get a divorce. But modern-day prenups tell us more about how to stay married.

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