The long and strange history of prenuptial agreements

If you are getting married, you have probably thought about whether to get a prenuptial agreement. Many people dislike the idea of prenups because they seem like unromantic contracts that anticipate a divorce. This concept is actually a very new, modern take on prenuptial agreements. Marital contracts, or what we now know as prenuptial agreements, are vital documents that have in fact been around for several centuries.

Property and parents

Prenuptial agreements date back to ancient Egypt. In fact, one of the earliest known prenups is over 2,000 years old. Back then, prenuptial agreements were not documents drafted by lawyers that represented the rights of each spouse. Rather, they were written or verbal contracts establishing the property that each spouse would bring to the marriage. They were used to establish the bride's dowry and the bridewealth--the price that a groom would pay the bride's family in exchange for marrying her.

These agreements were almost always made by the bride and groom's parents, not by the happy couple themselves. Modern-day couples might cringe at the thought of their in-laws choosing their spouse and haggling over a price for their hand in marriage, but it was a common practice until the early 20th century.

Women's rights

For several thousand years, women were not granted the right to own property. Often, they could not even choose their own spouses. As time went on, prenuptial agreements became a way to ensure that a woman could access her husband's property if he died. The very first instance of this occurred 2,000 years ago in an ancient Hebrew marriage contract called a ketubah. The use of prenups for this purpose was solidified in 1848, when New York State passed the Married Women's Property Act, ensuring that married women would inherit their husband's estate.

Prenups today

Today, prenuptial agreements are notarized contracts that stipulate property division in the event of a divorce. While prenups can serve to protect women's finances in a divorce, they are usually meant to protect the best interests of both spouses. The law now views prenuptial agreements as crucial documents for a fair division of assets.

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