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Published July 28, 2012, 11:30 PM

Proposing a prenup: Local couples share their stories

FARGO - Zach and Miranda of Fargo planned everything for their June 2010 wedding: the colors, the location, the cake – and the prenuptial agreement.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

FARGO - Zach and Miranda of Fargo planned everything for their June 2010 wedding: the colors, the location, the cake – and the prenuptial agreement.

The Lavelles are not alone. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers revealed that 73 percent of divorce attorneys surveyed reported an increase in demand for prenuptial agreements since 2005.

People who have significant assets prior to marriage often enter into a prenuptial agreement, or “prenup,” to protect their assets throughout the course of the marriage in the event of divorce or death, said Leah Sonstelie Warner, a civil litigation and family/domestic law attorney at Vogel Law Firm in Fargo.

Warner estimated that Fargo-Moorhead has an average number of prenuptial agreements for the size of the area, and many of the people pursuing prenups are farmers.

“They might have a family farm operation, and they want to make sure it is protected,” she said. “It’s not just their interests they want to protect. People want to make sure their family’s interests are protected.”

James and Inez Smith, both of Denver, signed a prenup 15 years ago for just that reason. James, who grew up Fargo, proposed to Inez with a 1¼ carat diamond ring his grandfather gave to his grandmother, both now deceased. Smith and his siblings wanted to ensure that the ring stay in their family.

“I loved my grandmother, and there was a part of me that wanted to share her with Inez,” he said. “It was done to preserve something for the family, both in the past and for future generations.”

Smith told his then-future bride that she could accept the ring and the prenup, or they could pick out a new ring for her and ignore the prenup.

“I told her that whether it was that ring, or we go out and get one that she would rather wear and ignore the prenup, I would agree with her wishes,” he said.

Both the Lavelles and the Smiths discussed the terms of their prenups well before their weddings.

In a 2012 poll by Northwestern Mutual, 78 percent of couples said they discussed personal finances before marriage.

“I had to be open and upfront with everything I was coming into the marriage with since we were going to be a team,” Miranda Lavelle said. “If you don’t, once you start working on a prenup, it’s all going to come to light pretty quickly.”

Discussing finances before marriage is important since each partner’s financial decisions have a direct impact on their financial future as a couple, said Karissa Schmoll, a marriage and family therapist at The Village Family Service Center in Moorhead.

“It is important to know if they are financially responsible and what their philosophy is on money,” she said. “Suggesting a prenup is usually a smart financial decision, which is a quality that most people would admire in a partner.”

Couples entering a prenup must identify assets and debts at the time of the agreement. One party has their lawyer draft the agreement, and the other party looks over the agreement with their own lawyer. Prenups also have to be a voluntary agreement in order to be enforced.

“No one should feel that they have to sign the agreement,” Warner said.

If one party feels the terms of the prenup are unfair, lawyers can negotiate.

“The only sticky point is when parties don’t agree on a term in the agreement, but generally, it’s always resolved,” Warner said.

In her 10 years of law practice, Warner said she has never seen a wedding called off due to a prenuptial agreement.

Working through a prenup can be good practice for marriage, Schmoll said, since there will be times that one partner wants something and the other doesn’t.

“It’s a good time to practice using positive communication skills and conflict resolution skills,” she said. “People should approach this issue with respect, patience and understanding.”

Both James Smith and Miranda Lavelle were concerned about their partners’ feelings when they proposed the idea of a prenup. Concern for the opposite party’s feelings is common, Warner said.

“An upcoming marriage is a happy time, and a prenuptial agreement certainly has its purpose,” she said. “We try to keep all communication positive and professional.”

Honesty about why one partner wants to protect assets is important too, Schmoll said.

“Kind, respectful, open and honest communication in a relationship cannot be overstated,” she said. “Communication that is filled with kindness and love will change the tone of these difficult conversations.”

James Smith said he explained to Inez how much the ring meant to his family and their desire to keep the ring in the family.

“I felt this was important to him, and I didn’t have a problem with signing the prenup,” Inez said. “I was honored by his thoughtfulness in giving me the ring to wear.”

Despite Zach Lavelle’s reassurance, Miranda considered not going through with the prenup just two weeks before the wedding because it seemed “cold and technical.”

Often times, Warner said, prenups can be viewed as anti-romantic although they serve an important purpose.

“When we were driving to the lawyer’s office to sign the papers, I turned to Zach and said, ‘We really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,’ ” Miranda said. “He reassured me that it was the smart thing to do, and he was just fine with it. Then we signed it, filed it and never really spoke of it again.”

James Smith was also apprehensive about asking Inez to sign a prenup.

“I thought it would put a crimp in the proposal,” James Smith said. “Looking back, I don’t think I would approach the proposal and follow-up ‘But here’s the deal ...’ any differently.”

Miranda and Zach Lavelle pointed to the open, honest communication in their relationship for the success of their journey to marriage.

“We were really open with each other from the beginning,” she said. “I would do a prenup again in a second, even if I was on the other end.”