Your Money, Your Future
Your Money, Your Future

Bill and Melinda Gates apparently had no prenup. Here's why you should consider one, ultra-wealthy or not

Key Points
  • A prenuptial agreement can ensure that assets you bring into the marriage remain yours if you and your spouse were to end up divorcing.
  • The contract also can address whether there would be spousal support (alimony) provided if the marriage ends.
  • Other situations, such as an anticipated inheritance, also can be addressed.
Bill and Melinda Gates
Frederic Stevens | Getty Images

Sure, you likely have nowhere near the wealth held by divorcing couple Bill and Melinda Gates.

Yet when it comes to protecting your assets ahead of marriage, that doesn't particularly matter, experts say. If you plan to wed, it may be worth determining how you and your spouse would each protect your assets and financial interests in case you end up going your separate ways.

"Anyone who has significant assets — which is in the eye of the beholder — that they either earned or inherited, and would want protected in the event of divorce, should consider a premarital agreement," said Gary Altman, founder and principal attorney of estate-planning law firm Altman & Associates.

The Gates, worth an estimated $130.3 billion and splitting after 27 years of marriage, apparently had no prenuptial contract — a so-called "prenup" — in place. Instead, a separation agreement — aka a postnuptial agreement — is guiding how their assets will be divided, according to published reports.

Most soon-to-be newlyweds likely don't envision divorce in their future and therefore may think an agreement is unnecessary. Yet if the unanticipated event happens — whether soon or decades down the road — trying to agree on who gets what could be challenging at best and devastating at worst.

"It's about the idea of protection," said certified financial planner Heather Comella, lead planner with financial wellness site Origin. "Think about if you'd need these assets to survive if your marriage were to fall apart."

Comella said if you have children when you enter the marriage, you also need to consider how much you'd need to support them over time, as well. 

VIDEO1:1101:11
Bill and Melinda Gates announce divorce

A prenup also could specify whether or not there would be spousal support — aka alimony — if there is a divorce or breakup, said CFP Stacy Francis, president and CEO of Francis Financial in New York. 

"We've also seen couples … protect themselves from each other's debt issues or past run-ins with addiction," Francis said.

Additionally, if you expect a large inheritance down the line, you may want a prenup to ensure those assets are not factored into the divorce equation at all, Francis said.

"The goal of a good prenup should be the facilitation of an honest discussion on finances, kids, future goals, and the financial consequences of the marriage ending," she added.

While prenuptial agreements in various forms have been around for centuries, they have been put more to use in recent decades. 

"The use has increased, but not by as much as I think it should be," said Altman, who has been doing estate planning for more than three decades.

Altman routinely now asks his estate-planning clients if they want a clause in their legal documents that would require their children to enter into pre- or post-marital agreements if they want to access their inheritance.

"They say you can inherit $1 million, but you can only get it if you sign an agreement saying your spouse can't have it," Altman said.