For couples planning a wedding, it’s easy and fun to focus on the cake, the honeymoon, which flower colors to choose and the number of bridesmaids to include in the ceremony.

Some essential items, though, are often less amusing and more contentious. Couples need to decide whether they need a prenuptial agreement or trust, write a will and change all their documents to reflect their new legal status.

For Zoe Twitt, a 31-year-old fashion designer living in Denver, running her own growing business, means – for a time – relying more heavily on her fiancé’s income. Her father, an Australian entrepreneur, gave her money for her business as her wedding gift. She and her fiancé, Brendan Burke, 32, an investment banker, are marrying June 12 in New York City.

“They weren’t difficult conversations,” says Twitt of the frank discussions she and Burke had about how they would handle their finances. “Everything was fairly easy and straightforward. Brendan talks about money all day long!”

As a “creative person” whose income is more “unstable and tenuous,” Twitt is comfortable, for now, knowing that while she will need to rely on his income for a while, she also brings significant savings to the marriage.

“Zoe is an entrepreneur and just launched a business,” says Burke. “Since we’re funding the business ourselves, her business decisions often have substantial ramifications for our personal financial situation. That makes those decisions much more emotional than me making a spending decision for Headwaters, the company I work for.”

They have not yet made out new wills, but plan to do so soon.

Should You Have a Prenuptial Agreement?

The couple discussed having a prenuptial agreement, says Burke. “We explored it with some family-law attorneys, but ultimately decided against it. We decided that, absent a huge disparity in wealth, a prenup was not necessary.”

For Michael Dwyer, a corporate pilot, and his wife, Janet Donnelly, a financial controller for a pharmaceutical company, mingling their financial affairs and future was made somewhat more complicated by the four young daughters from previous marriages they share between them, ranging in age from 10 to 13. The Long Island, N.Y., couple, who reconnected after meeting 17 years earlier, have been careful to set up individual 529-plan accounts for their daughters’ college educations.

Both say their ex-spouse would become legally and financially responsible for their respective children in case of their death.

The couple “are still working through” the creation of new living wills, health-care proxies and wills; each brought pre-existing documents to the marriage. Dwyer sold his house and the couple renovated hers before his family moved in.

“We were more focused on getting the kids settled down. Now things are calmer, and we’re dealing with these issues,” says Dwyer.

Get Your Affairs in Order

For Donnelly, getting their affairs in order is “actually very important to me. I like to have things in place should something arise.” Both have 401(k) accounts, separate and joint, and have named beneficiaries for them.

Every married couple “definitely should have wills,” advises Isabel Miranda, an attorney in Bloomfield Hills, N.J., who specializes in trusts and estate planning. She is less persuaded of the need for a prenuptial agreement unless there is a great disparity in assets, in which case, “the family will insist on it. The children of wealthy families understand the family will demand it.”

If one spouse is not from a wealthy background, however, requiring that they sign a prenuptial agreement is problematic, she warns. “Feelings get hurt. They see it as insulting.” In that case, each person must use their own lawyer and submit their finances to full disclosure. “It can be very uncomfortable,” says Miranda. “It’s not a lovey-dovey conversation.”

Leaving assets in a trust offers a compromise, she suggests.

Couples who should consider creating a prenuptial agreement are those who are older, and those who come to the altar with his and her own assets and retirement plans. “Most people who have children from a prior marriage do have prenups,” she says.

Don’t Forget a Health Care Proxy and Living Will

Basic legal changes every married couple must make include giving power of attorney to one another, creating a living will and designating a health care proxy. But making these crucial decisions is often something that couples, certainly younger ones, tend to ignore or put off. “It’s not top of mind,” says Miranda.

The living will is important because it makes clear what your wishes are in case you cannot communicate them to medical staff, and the health care proxy is the person who will make sure those wishes are respected. “If you don’t say what it is you want to happen, the doctors will do everything in their power to keep you alive, even if you don’t want that. Say it! Then your health care proxy is able to fight for your rights,” explains Miranda.

The power of attorney is essential in case one person is incapacitated and can’t communicate. “It’s important if the couple doesn’t have joint accounts,” says Miranda. “The spouse would have no power to transact business on their behalf without this.” It’s also important to make sure someone else has ready access to all these documents in case of emergency so that they can be scanned or faxed if you are out of the state or the country. For more details on what you need, see Do You Have This Crucial Financial Letter?

People worry that seeing a lawyer to create these important documents is complicated and expensive, not mention the fear or distaste about even discussing death, Miranda adds, urging that they persevere. “When you marry, you have a responsibility to your spouse. Don’t you owe them a duty of care?”

“Invest in some legal advice,” she says. “It’s an investment worth making.”

The Bottom Line

Getting married means creating a new family, and a new set of financial and legal commitments. Take time to review your current documents carefully, and invest some time and money in preparing the new ones you need with the help of an attorney.

Related Articles
  1. Budgeting

    Marriage: For Richer Or Poorer?

    Marriage can be like doubling an income, as long as you avoid doubling these expenses.
  2. Taxes

    Why Marriage Makes Financial Sense

    Getting married has many financial positives. Here are some of them.
  3. Personal Finance

    Newlyweds: 5 Money Matters For A Recession-Era Marriage

    Follow these five tips to have a financially - and emotionally - healthy marriage.
  4. Personal Finance

    The Economics Of A Successful Marriage

    These theories can keep multi-million dollar corporations afloat, so they should be able to increase the odds of wedded bliss.
  5. Savings

    Marriage Vs. Common Law: What It Means Financially

    The number of unmarried couples is on the rise, but your relationship may or may not be given the same benefits as married couples.
  6. Retirement

    5 Things To Consider Before Late-In-Life Marriage

    Waiting to marry has become the norm, but do you know what to consider before saying "I do"?
  7. Estate Planning

    Estate Planning: 16 Things To Do Before You Die

    If you don’t plan your estate, your surviving family may have to deal with disputes and probate that were avoidable.
  8. Your Practice

    Advisors: $240B in Fees Up for Grabs by 2030

    Advisors have an opportunity to win generational assets over the next 15 years. Here are some tips on how to cater to different demographics.
  9. Personal Finance

    Want Your Will to Prevail? Don't Die Intestate

    If you die without making a last will and testament, you are said to have died intestate. What happens to your assets in this case?
  10. Your Clients

    When to Trust a Revocable Trust

    Unsure of how your assets will be dispersed once you're gone? Here's how setting up a revocable trust while you're here can be a big benefit.
  1. Are estate planning fees tax deductible?

    Estate planning fees may be tax deductible, but only if certain conditions have been met. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can personal loans be included in bankruptcy?

    Personal loans from friends, family and employers fall under common categories of debt that can be discharged in the case ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How much money does Texas make from unclaimed property each year?

    In 2014, the office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts reported $234 million in unclaimed property claimant liabilities, ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. How much money does Michigan make from unclaimed property each year?

    According to the 2013-2014 Annual Report of the State Treasurer, the state of Michigan earned only $82,875 in abandoned and ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Who decides if a financial security should be escheated?

    There is no one entity who "decides" to escheat assets. Rather, financial institutions are required to report inactive accounts ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. What causes a stock account to be escheated?

    Your state government may be able to escheat your stock account or another financial asset if the account or asset is deemed ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Super Bowl Indicator

    An indicator based on the belief that a Super Bowl win for a team from the old AFL (AFC division) foretells a decline in ...
  2. Flight To Quality

    The action of investors moving their capital away from riskier investments to the safest possible investment vehicles. This ...
  3. Discouraged Worker

    A person who is eligible for employment and is able to work, but is currently unemployed and has not attempted to find employment ...
  4. Ponzimonium

    After Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme was revealed, many new (smaller-scale) Ponzi schemers became exposed. Ponzimonium ...
  5. Quarterly Earnings Report

    A quarterly filing made by public companies to report their performance. Included in earnings reports are items such as net ...
Trading Center