No marriage is divorce proof. Marriages have peaks and valleys and long roads in between. The business of being married is work and no couple entering into their first marriage can possibly understand exactly what that means until they are in the thick of it. As a matrimonial attorney and someone who is also married with two young children, I did not understand it either. I had practiced as a matrimonial attorney, drafting prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, divorcing couples, and handling post-divorce issues for over ten years when I got married, and I still had no idea. What I know now, in my eighteenth year of matrimonial practice and coming up on the tenth anniversary of my marriage, is that couples will do better in the “business of marriage” if they have some tough conversations before they say “I do.”
The concept of premarital counseling is not new. Premarital counseling is often suggested or required by a couple’s religious affiliation. If you Google the phrase “Premarital Mediation” you will find resources for the Pre-Cana process in the Catholic religion, where couples discuss financial matters, spirituality, conflict resolution, balancing values and careers, and communication prior to their wedding. You will find premarital counseling in the Islamic faith as well, where couples discuss issues related to their religion and culture, especially where they live in a culturally homogenous area with little religious and community support. Couples are also using premarital counseling when they are from different religions— one website refers to the idea as premarital counseling for “mixed belief relationships,” as people from different faiths may have different views on how they will function as a married couple – especially if they have children.
While the concept is not novel, the issues that couples dealt with in premarital counseling 20-30 years ago are very different than the issues that come up today. Today, couples are getting married later in life—in many cases in their thirties or forties, when each party has already made serious investments, contributed to a retirement account, perhaps purchased a home, and may have started a business. How does that couple integrate what they have from before the marriage into their new financial and emotional partnership? Do they combine bank accounts? Should they combine bank accounts? If the couple plans to have children, will one parent stay home, will one parent work remotely, are both people accepting of that concept – or not? Much like having a business partner and a partnership contract, a marriage is a legal relationship with real legal implications. When business partners or spouses see these financial or interpersonal issues differently, it can breed anger and resentment.
Given the trend of marrying a bit later in life, it is even more important in today’s world for couples entering into a marriage to understand the impact of their legal union. We are offering couples the opportunity to combine the concept of premarital counseling with mediation, providing couples a forum in which they can learn about how New York law will impact them financially as a married couple.
Mediation at its core is a voluntary process, whereby a neutral third party who has been specially trained, assists couples in resolving a dispute of some kind or in reaching an understanding with respect to sensitive topics. In the family law realm, that may involve negotiating a prenuptial agreement or a postnuptial agreement, a divorce, or post-divorce issues concerning custody, parenting or support. This very same process can be used in advance of a marriage to discuss issues central to combining two adult lives into one legal partnership. For example, if one person has a great deal of wealth going into the marriage, what does that mean? Most couples do not know; they do not understand the differences between marital property and separate property, and they do not know how separate property can become marital property. These are not concepts that you want to learn from Google.
Our goal is to provide couples with a supportive environment where they can discuss their individual ideas of marriage with a neutral third party, while learning how the law may impact them specifically. For example, the person who accumulated a great deal of wealth before marriage may realize that they need a prenuptial agreement to ensure that premarital assets are protected. In other situations, the couple may be wondering what happens if they receive a gift from family to purchase a home or inherit a property where they plan to reside as a family. If the couple has answers to these types of questions before their marriage, they can plan appropriately so that, in the unfortunate event of death or divorce, the outcome is a known quantity resulting from careful and thoughtful consideration.
The Pre-Marriage Mediation Process includes a New York divorce primer, which teaches couples how the law is applied in New York State, both in a divorce and when a spouse dies while married. Then, with that knowledge, a conversation can be had, facilitated by a trained mediator, about topics such as:
- What type of financial partnership you would like to have and how that relationship may be different than the default under the law.
- How to handle finances during your marriage and what the various implications are depending on how you use your accounts during the marriage.
- Discussion of future financial goals, life insurance, use of a financial planner and/or estate attorney to protect your assets and each other.
- What Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements are and when such Agreements may be relevant and helpful.
- How to handle gifts and inheritance during a marriage.
- How to create or avoid the creation of marital property during a marriage.
- What your options are if you are at an impasse during your marriage.
- Discussion of various options for handling divorce and separation if that were to occur.
Pre-Marriage Mediation offers couples two benefits: the opportunity to have a conversation about the type of financial partnership they each envision during the business of their marriage and the opportunity to understand how New York law may impact their marriage in the event of divorce or death. For more information on this process, please reach out to attorney and mediator, Jessica L. Toelstedt, of Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein, LLP.