By Linda M. Toga, Esq.
THE FACTS: I am widowed, have two grown children and will soon be getting married to Joe. Joe also has children from his first marriage. We are both financially independent and have agreed that our assets will remain separate. When I die, I want my children to receive the bulk of my assets.
THE QUESTION: Should I ask Joe to sign a prenuptial agreement?
THE ANSWER: The quick answer to your question is Yes. Properly drafted prenuptial agreements ensure that assets that are held by one spouse at the time of the marriage remain separate and that marital assets are only those assets that the spouses intentionally commingle.
In other words, if, at the time of the marriage, you have a brokerage account worth $200,000, that account will not be subject to equitable distribution in the event the marriage terminates in divorce unless you add Joe’s name to the account.
However, if you choose to use some of that money to purchase a house with Joe, the assets you invested in the house will no longer be deemed your separate property and will be subject to equitable distribution in the event of a divorce. You and Joe need to discuss how you want your separate assets to be treated in the event of a divorce and have a prenuptial agreement prepared that reflects those wishes.
In addition to addressing how your separate property will be treated, your prenuptial agreement should address how your retirement accounts and pension plans are to be handled. Some such accounts and plans require the account holder or the plan participant to obtain the consent of his/her spouse if that spouse is not going to be the beneficiary on the account/plan.
If you have such an account or pension plan and you want to name your children as the beneficiaries, you will want Joe to waive any rights he may have to the assets held in the account or managed by the plan.
While most people understand the importance of prenuptial agreements in connection with divorce, such agreements are equally, if not more important, when one of the spouses dies. That is because a well-written prenuptial agreement addresses the rights of a surviving spouse to share in the estate of his/her deceased spouse.
In New York, spouses have priority over other family members to administer the estate of a person who dies without a will. That means that if you do not have a will at the time of your death, the Surrogate’s Court will give Joe, and not your children, priority to become the administrator of your estate.
In addition to having the right to handle the estate of an intestate spouse, under the intestacy statute that governs the estates of people who die without a will, the surviving spouse is entitled to the first $50,000 of the testamentary estate and 50 percent of the balance of the estate. In your case, Joe would be entitled to more than half of your estate, leaving your children with less than they would be entitled to if you had not remarried.
Even if you have a will at the time of your death, Joe, as the surviving spouse, can exercise his right of election. That means that he can claim one-third of almost all of your assets regardless of whether you owned the assets jointly with another person or designated other people as beneficiaries via a beneficiary
In other words, Joe would be entitled to one-third of an account you owned jointly with your children and one-third of your pension or retirement plan. To ensure that your estate is handled by the person of your choosing and that your assets pass to your intended beneficiaries regardless of whether you have a will, it is important to have Joe sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his spousal rights. The waiver should address both the administration of your estate and the right of election. Since prenuptial agreements are generally reciprocal, you should be prepared to waive the same rights in the prenuptial agreement as Joe.
If you decide a prenuptial agreement is the best way to proceed, you should retain an experienced attorney well in advance of your marriage to prepare the agreement. To ensure that the prenuptial agreement you sign is enforceable, Joe should have separate counsel so that he cannot argue that he did not understand the rights he was waiving or the consequences of signing the agreement.
Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning, wills and trusts, Medicaid planning, estate administration, marital agreements, small business services, real estate and litigation. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.