One of my oldest and dearest friends, Nell, started off middle-class but is now wealthy. She and her husband Peter have invested wisely and are considering different options for estate-planning. Their financial advisor suggested that they set a provision in their estate that money inherited by their two children be shielded from future spouses.
“Our advisor told us that that’s what wealthy families do,” Nell told me over coffee recently. “I looked at Peter and said, ‘we are never doing that — that’s just like the Machiavellis!'”
Nell was referring to the the prenup I had signed when I married Prince, and the role money played in the undoing of our marriage.
Guess What Showed Up After the Invitations Were Sent Out?
Two weeks after the wedding invitations went out, after I was told there would not be a prenup, I was suddenly presented with one. I was confused.
When we got engaged, I asked Prince if I would be asked to sign a prenup. His family was loaded and mine was not, so I expected that a prenup might be in the works. It seemed perfectly reasonable.
Prince told me no, but had an odd look on his face when he replied. In hindsight, I suspect that he knew there would be a prenup, but was instructed not to tell me about it.
Why had I been misled? Why didn’t they tell me about the prenup ahead of time? I didn’t object to the idea of signing a prenup. What left me unsettled was the out-of-left-field way the prenup appeared and the lack of transparent dialogue around it.
I was raised by a teacher and a former minister. The extent of my education about money was my mother’s assurance that “it’s so nice when you get married and ‘my money’ becomes ‘our money’ and it all goes into one pot.”
I chuckle sardonically as I remember those words. If ever there were a lamb being fed to the lions, it was me.
Guess What I Asked For?
So there I sat at the conference table in my attorney’s office, just a few weeks before I was set to float down the aisle in a cloud of satin and tulle, dazed, trying to convince myself that my lawyer was being paranoid on my behalf.
He explained that the prenup left me completely unprotected. I was cut out from any inheritance my fiance might receive from his parents. There were no financial safeguards for me: no retirement plan, no life insurance policy, no severance package should the marriage end.
“If he never makes a dime and decides to leave you, you’ll get nothing,” my attorney said. “His family dumps this prenup in your lap after the invitations went out. That’s the oldest trick in the book. You cannot sign this.”
As he spoke, I felt as if my IQ had dropped to single digits. I was vaguely aware of his words floating around me but I could not for the life of me get them to line up into sentences that made sense. He was implying that my in-laws — the larger-than-life couple who showered me with accolades and fanfare and multiple engagement parties — had engineered their son’s marriage so I could be conveniently excised.
I was raised to be a “nice girl” who didn’t make waves. I was raised to believe that money ultimately didn’t matter, only love. Insisting on some kind of “severance package” should the marriage end, or even a retirement plan, felt tacky and gold-diggery. Wouldn’t that make it appear that I didn’t trust my in-laws, or my husband-to-be? Wouldn’t I appear ungrateful, especially after my in-laws had taken me under their wing and bankrolled a wedding fit for the Royals?
I tried to explain all this to the attorney. He stared at me like I was an utter buffoon.
“I want to make sure you understand what you’re doing. This whole prenup is set up to keep you from having access to any money. At the very least, you have to insist on a joint checking account.”
I did. But I felt guilty about it. My then-fiance agreed, albeit a bit grudgingly. It ultimately didn’t matter, I told myself. He was going to be successful and this tawdry prenup business would be irrelevant. Plus, our marriage was going to last forever.
Money Was Our Undoing
After we got married, I quit my day job so I could focus on freelance writing. Prince pursued his freelance career with a vengeance but never made a steady income. Then we had Luca and my ambition waned in the I-just-wanna-nest-iness of first-time motherhood.
We lived in an affluent part of town and most of our couple friends had the same arrangement: the moms were full-time moms, going to baby groups and Gymboree and Dance and Jingle, and the dads were the breadwinners. My sister had stayed home with her kids. With her and so many other SAHM friends as role models, I interpreted SAHMdom as a sign of acceptability — and, for some weird reason, a sign that a husband loved his wife.
The problem with this arrangement was that Prince never became a steady breadwinner. His parents supported our lifestyle, and we became increasingly dependent on them. They bankrolled their other kids, so the more I became caught up in their world, the less odd this seemed.
What did seem odd was Prince’s insistence that he oversee every household expenditure. He told me that I was “ignorant” about money and that he needed to control all of it.
Secrets and Lies
After Luca was born, I suggested we make a will, but Prince refused. His unwillingness to talk openly about money — something grown-up married people do — made me angry and paranoid. But paranoid for good reason.
Gradually I learned of family summit meetings about estate-planning from which I had been excluded. I rehashed the prenup with Prince ad nauseaum. Why wasn’t he concerned with protecting the mother of his child? Why was he only concerned with looking out for his family’s money, money which was in endless and ever-increasing supply?
My questions, which I’m sure felt like attacks, fueled Prince’s inherent paranoia, which then created paranoia on my part. We began to view each other as opponents instead of partners.
I did stupid, angry things like spend money on clothes I didn’t need. Why I didn’t take money out of our joint account and set up a retirement account for myself is a mystery. Why I didn’t look for steady work — regardless of Prince’s insistence that he shouldn’t have to — which would have empowered me, now seems inexplicable.
Not saving for retirement, and my decision to be a SAHM, were two of the biggest financial blunders I’ve ever made — along with signing away my rights in a shady prenup.
Money and Values
Whether and how much families talk about finances shapes their children’s relationship to money. Prince’s family’s philosophy of leaving as little on the table as possible for others turned him into someone motivated by relentless acquisition. My parents’ naivete about money, combined with their reluctance to talk about it, turned me into a financial rube.
So Prince was not entirely off the mark: I was ignorant about money.
By not protecting myself, beginning with the prenup, I demonstrated to the Machiavellis that I didn’t know my own self-worth. And in truth, I didn’t. This tacit admission, I believe, led them to view me with contempt. Since I was dumb enough not to protect myself, I deserved to be taken advantage of.
Do Prenups That Provide Money for Spouses Incentivize Divorce?
During one of our pointless Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking arguments about the prenup, I asked Prince why there wasn’t a financial provision for me in case of divorce, as is common with other prenups.
“That would only incentivize divorce,” he told me. “Besides, you had your chance to ask for what you wanted. You should have negotiated better.”
True. But should a prospective spouse have to?
Leveling the Financial Playing Field
Before I married Prince, I worked as an assistant to a wealthy family. Both the mother and the daughter-in-law had grown up poor and married into local royalty. Upon their marriages, both of them received $1,000,000 trust funds in their name.
And both of them stayed married.
I think this family was savvy enough to address proactively the inherent asymmetry in financial backgrounds. I think they wanted to level the playing field enough to prevent resentment and to give the daughters-in-laws their own money to control. I think the trust funds were a sign that they valued and respected these women. They understood that creating an environment of scarcity inevitably breeds competition, paranoia, and greed — and creating a culture of plenty creates cooperation, trust, and a sense of having enough.
I think my friends Nell and Peter have the same philosophy. Nell shook her head when recounting her financial advisor’s suggestion to protect family assets from future in-laws.
“We just don’t think that way,” she said. “How could we cut out our kids’ spouses? Family’s family.”
Will their kids’ marriages last? Based on my experience marrying into a culture of scarcity, my money’s on the culture of plenty anyday.