For couples who marry later in life or who have children from a prior relationship, Premarital Agreements often incorporate waivers of spousal rights at death to ensure that previously created wealth is protected for children, grandchildren and charitable endeavors. As Premarital Agreements continue to increase in popularity and acceptance for these couples, we have found there to be a fairly consistent misunderstanding common among clients – that is the relationship between the Premarital Agreement and the Will (or Revocable Trust).
Many clients initially view the Premarital Agreement and the Will as interchangeable documents with similar contractual qualities and are primarily focused on the Premarital Agreement in the event of divorce. Clients often do not initially understand the importance of including provisions in the Premarital Agreement regarding obligations at death between spouses, and simply state “we plan to just take care of that in our Wills”.
We have found that it is extremely important to carefully walk through the differences between the Premarital Agreement and the Will with our clients. Specifically, it is important to discuss that the Premarital Agreement is a contractual document which sets the minimum obligations that each spouse has to the other in the event of death, whereas the Will can be but one of many vehicles used to satisfy these Premarital Agreement obligations and which can provide additional benefits to the less-propertied spouse. It is also important to note that the Will and other estate planning documents are changeable and in the full discretion of the other spouse during the marriage (provided that waivers of spousal rights are included in the Premarital Agreement).
Related to this issue of Premarital Agreement versus Will is that of the expectations and understanding of any adult children from a prior marriage. These children may incorrectly view themselves as third party beneficiaries of the Premarital Agreement. In other words – that the limitations on spousal rights at death which are included in the Premarital Agreement are limits that cannot be exceeded and that all other assets are protected for the benefit of the adult children from the first marriage. While not all clients want to share these discussions with their adult children, it is important to ensure that clients understand that the Premarital Agreement merely sets the floor in terms of the obligations between spouses at death and that additional gifts may be made in the estate plan without any need to amend the Premarital Agreement.
The Premarital Agreement versus Will discussion also ties to the inevitable issues of capacity for these clients – particularly those who marry again later in life. We have found that it is helpful to discuss and make explicit the expectations of these clients as to whether an agent or guardian appointed for the incapacitated spouse – particularly, the adult child – should have the authority to (i) amend or revoke the Premarital Agreement or (ii) pursue a dissolution of marriage action during a client’s incapacity.