We try to stay away from successive articles on the same subject. But a fellow lawyer and friend sent me a link to information about a new online legal product available for “only $599” after having been featured on SharkTank last month. The basic premise of the pitch is: “Why spend $2,500 for a prenuptial agreement when you can do it online at home for 20% of the price?”
In case you care, I have an answer to that question. “Because marriage is the most significant transaction you will form in your life and because unlike most contracts, you may be bound by this one for as long as you live.” Buy a house. Don’t like it; you can sell it. Take on massive debt to start a business or make an investment. Bankruptcy laws can help you if the dream fails.
In law school your contracts course teaches you that contracts you form while high, drunk or otherwise deluded can be voided once you get your act together. Marriage is not one of those contracts. This is a blog so we are not going to try to set out how love is different than other things. Suffice to say it is different and the law treats it as a higher form of contract “not lightly formed.”
Every one of us who has a job, owns a car or enrolls in college has formed a contract. When we form those arrangements we usually are not driven by emotion. Deciding to ask a person to marry you or consenting to another person’s request is quite a bit different, yes? Ask the local realtor to sell your $300,000 house and that person is going to want $15,000 to $18,000 to do a transaction that in todays market could be earned in a couple hours. Hire someone to counsel your kid on college admissions and expect to pay $200 an hour. Want to get the current software to file your 2021 income tax return. Prices start at $199 for each year.
So how does $599 sound to write your own contract to share all the responsibilities of life, child rearing and your financial well being? No lawyer needed, just answer the questions and Venmo the fee. I thought I might try so I logged in and turned over name and rank but stopped short at the serial number. About 10 questions in, here’s the question tendered:
How well do you understand your legal rights with respect to this prenuptial agreement under your state law?
To give credit, one of the earlier questions asks you to identify the state law that would apply and warned that the software currently only works in 18 states. But suppose you married at mom and dad’s house in Harrisburg and then moved to Massachusetts before discovering that he’s not Mr. Right? Hmmmmm. The electronic form HelloPrenup provided offers a tutorial on state law in the state you select but what if you are getting married in Pennsylvania yet planning to live in Massachusetts. Suffice to say that your agreement will be viewed by a different standard in Massachusetts than it would if you had settled in Cumberland County.
Ask anyone who has been married and they will tell you that marriage is complicated. Prenuptial agreements can actually help couples resolve issues and illuminate differences in needs and perspectives. That’s a good thing although the road to that destination is not always a smooth one. In our last post we noted that discussions in premarital negotiations often touch upon subjects like whether parents should make child rearing a priority or how to address an expected inheritance or business interest. Those questions do not invite a multiple choice answer. And poorly considered answers can derail what should be a productive discussion. Suppose you work for IBM getting a salary, stock incentives and a retirement package. The love of your life works for her mother’s business where she has a 20% interest and there is no retirement because “someday we will sell the company and be rich.” Your intended asks you to waive any claims to “Mom’s business” including her 20% interest. Will the algorithm built into the prenuptial software suggest that your future spouse waive rights to all your IBM stuff? And is that what you want your financial marriage to be?
Yes, lawyers are expensive and some can be pretty ham handed when dealing where matters of the heart mingle with those of the wallet. But if your budget to resolve these issues is $600 and a couple hours punching answers into a computer, you probably should avoid a prenuptial and perhaps a marriage. What Thomas Paine wrote about “Liberty” 250 years ago may well apply: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too light.” Marriage is about as big a deal as you will ever make. Weddings and the associated prenuptial agreement are places where the expense of “custom fit” may save the couple a lot of angst in the years to come.