Pre-nuptial agreements are gaining more recognition in the press and in court and are becoming increasingly common insurance policies for engaged couples. Despite their increasing popularity, there is relatively little research available into the psychology of entering into a pre-nup. 

The family law team at Penningtons Manches has therefore welcomed the research findings of University of Cambridge graduate, Katherine Warren, who has carried out extensive research into public opinion on pre-nups. 

Warren’s study asked individuals a series of questions, including whether they thought pre-nuptial agreements should be allowed and legally binding in the UK, what effect people believe they have on marriage and divorce rates, what they symbolise about individuals and relationships and how they affect marriage as an institution. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over 90% of participants believe that individuals should be free to enter into a pre-nup if they wish to do so. However, there was less support for them being legally binding in all circumstances. Most participants (61%) believed that they should be legally binding in some circumstances as this would provide an increased certainty about the division of assets if a divorce or civil partnership dissolution was to take place, while still protecting individuals from an unfair or exploitive agreement. 

There were mixed responses as to whether pre-nups encourage or discourage marriage. Over half of participants thought that a pre-nuptial agreement would encourage marriage for couples who fear the consequences of a divorce. Meanwhile, for most, the possibility that pre-nuptial agreements could discourage some marriages was not considered a negative. Responses often suggested that a pre-nuptial agreement would only discourage a marriage that was occurring for the wrong reasons. 

Many participants thought that the existence of a pre-nuptial agreement would not increase a couple’s chances of divorce; some suggested that it would make divorce less likely due to increased honesty. It was often stated that decisions to get married or divorced are, and should be, separate from financial concerns. 

Some likened pre-nups to making a will or taking out life insurance, arguing that the presence of life insurance or a will does not make an individual more likely to die but it does make financial proceedings easier when this occurs. Obtaining a pre-nuptial agreement was considered particularly rational when the individuals involved have substantial assets, a significant inheritance or children from previous marriages whose inheritance they wish to protect. Almost three quarters (72%) of responses mentioned individuals with significant assets as being more likely to obtain a pre-nuptial agreement. 

Additionally, those who reported having a higher income were more likely to be in favour of obtaining a pre-nuptial agreement in their own relationships. For individuals who risk incurring substantial losses in the event of divorce, obtaining a pre-nuptial agreement is seen as sensible rather than pessimistic. 

Almost a third (30%) of participants who had never been married said that they would consider obtaining a pre-nuptial agreement and they were even more popular amongst those who had been through a divorce, with 50% stating that they would consider it. As might be expected, previous experiences of divorce made individuals significantly more likely to consider a pre-nup in the future. These participants often felt that a pre-nuptial agreement in their previous relationship would have made the divorce significantly easier. 

A significant proportion of participants thought they would be open-minded if their current or future partner asked them to enter into a pre-nuptial agreement. However, several suggested that they would be happier, and more likely to agree, if the matter had been discussed beforehand and felt more like a mutual decision. There were, of course, some participants who were strongly against the idea but these were in the minority. 

In this study there were only three participants who had a pre-nuptial agreement in their current relationship. They all felt that the pre-nuptial agreement was having no negative impact on their relationship and did not believe that a pre-nuptial agreement would increase the likelihood of a couple obtaining a divorce. 

Proposed changes in family law are often followed by public outcry that these will threaten the sanctity of marriage. However, in this study, the majority did not think that the existence of pre-nuptial agreements, nor legislative changes to make pre-nuptial agreements legally binding would negatively affect the institution of marriage. Some participants suggested that pre-nuptial agreements could have a positive impact by increasing security and the quality of marriage. 

Commenting on the findings of the study, Lucy Cummin, a member of the Penningtons Manches family law team, said: “This unique and fascinating study shows that public attitude towards pre-nuptial agreements is largely positive and that they are more often considered to be rational and realistic insurance policies rather than an unromantic signal of a future intention to divorce. 

“In particular, for individuals who have previously been through a divorce, have children from previous relationships or have significant assets, pre-nuptial agreements are viewed as a sensible precaution against the possibility of a future relationship breakdown.” 

A longer version of the study findings can be found here.

This article has been co-written with the author of the study, Katherine Warren.