This past week I gave a three-hour training to almost 20 family mediators on premarital mediation. We discussed how they could add it to their services along with one of my mentors and excellent mediator, Chip Rose, as part of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) annual 2021 conference. For any professionals who may have missed it and are interested in viewing it, you’ll be able to access the recordings within a few weeks on the APFM website. Having the opportunity to train other mediators and learn some more things was an excellent opportunity. It got me thinking more about how to educate better those who are getting married about what exactly premarital mediation is and why everyone should be thinking about it. Now many people have heard of prenups (prenuptial agreement) but far less have listened to premarital mediation or understand what exactly it is, so I’m here to share some key points.
Getting married is usually one of the most exciting times in your life. You’re probably thinking about the venue, flowers, color scheme, and for the ladies, your dress, and what you’re probably not thinking about is what happens after the wedding. Now everyone is at different points in their relationships when they get married. My husband and I had been together 6.5 years while I had friends who got married after one year of knowing each other. We had already been living together for 3+ years when we got married, and other people choose to wait to live together until they’re married. There’s no right way to do it, however the less time you’ve been with your fiancé, the less you probably know about each other and potentially the less difficult conversations you’ve been a part of. Being in a relationship and being married, there is a host of difficult conversations you’ll have to have over the years. Everything from do you want children, to how to raise those children, to dealing with parents and in-laws to where you live, how you spend your money and how you divide up your work both in and outside of the home, and these are just a few of them. Those couples who start their relationships having these difficult conversations are more likely to succeed because they know how to have the conversations and how to communicate. However, just because you didn’t start your relationship that way when you started dating doesn’t mean it can’t change now and that you can’t start your marriage off from a better place. That being said, it’s not easy to have these conversations, and having someone to help you host these difficult conversations is part of the role I play as a mediator doing premarital mediation. Additionally, as someone who works in divorce mediation, I know the issues that last most clients in my office down the road and hopefully some ways to avoid that.
Education Before Getting Married
I’ve been in your shoes, and I know it can be scary to think about sitting down in mediation with your fiancé and talking about some of these things that you’ve probably found are easier to ignore, or you hope they will work themselves out when they happen. However, think about anything you do well, from your work to a sport or hobby you have. You didn’t just get good at it overnight. You got good at it because you put the time and energy into becoming the best at what you do and to continue improving. You probably started on a team or with a coach or mentor who helped you get better and figure out what to do, and now you also continue to practice or do what you’re good at so you don’t lose the skill. Getting married isn’t entirely different. Having someone who can help you start those conversations and figure out what you need to know before you get married. Getting married isn’t something to take lightly, although as I often hear from my divorcing clients, it is far easier to get married than getting divorced. And nobody who gets married wants their marriage not to succeed. Still, they often put less time into education before getting married than we do to learn how to play a new sport, cook new food, or even the training and education we might get for a new job. Now it doesn’t have to be mediation. Many religions and therapists offer education and counseling before you get married, but what’s different about mediation is that it often doesn’t come with the preconceived notions about their religious leader or a therapist. There are so many more things that we can discuss and be educated about in mediation that neither of those professionals may bring up. Additionally, it’s essential to understand what the law says about your new marriage and how it deals with property and income, and other financial and personal issues that might arise. Too many people get married not understanding what would happen in a divorce until they’re in that situation.
Lenses to Look Through
I learned from Chip to apply premarital mediation in the same way we might in other family mediations. We can look through three lenses as the engaged couple is thinking about what issues they may want to discuss. There is one, the law, two, the natural world, and three things that only the couple can choose. For the law in California, as I know other states have, we have laws that couples getting married and divorced fall under, so this means if you don’t choose to enter into some premarital agreement (more on that next), then you do still have one, it’s the family code of California that says things such as everything you acquire during the marriage unless it’s a gift or inheritance is community property and can be split 50/50. Or that if you do receive an inheritance, that inheritance can be considered the separate property of the person who received it. Your spouse may not be entitled to any of it, or if they co-mingle it, they may not be able to keep it separate. Second, the real world is how you are going to hold your property and what things will look like. Just because inheritance is separate property, you probably won’t keep that in its account, and then you may be waiving your right for that to remain only your separate property. And lastly, you can look through the lens of how you choose your relationship and marriage to be and what that looks like. It’s important to think about how you choose to live and what that will mean.
Premarital mediation does not have to end with a premarital agreement (more commonly known as a prenup). However, it can, and as I discussed above, it’s important to remember that you must follow the state laws without your premarital agreement, which you may or may not want to. How do you feel about what was probably a group of older white men in the legislature being the ones to decide how your marriage will run? We can draft a premarital agreement based on the decisions you and your future spouse have made about how you want to handle your future finances and life so that it’s clear how you want to handle things during the marriage and in the case of divorce or death. All marriages are going to end (uplifting, I know) at some point. Suppose you haven’t had the conversations of what that might look like when it does, by either divorce or death. In that case, you may find yourself not only dealing with a very emotionally difficult situation but also trying to figure out who owns your property and potentially dealing with other legal and financial difficulties. No one wants to be in a compromised position down the road, and planning now is the way to know that you’ve thought through things.