A standard plot device to break up an engaged couple, or to introduce a conflict for them to overcome, a prenuptial agreement (often abbreviated to 'prenup') is a document signed before a marriage which specifies the division of assets. This comes into play primarily in the event of a divorce, but may also govern distribution of wages and ownership of non-joint accounts during the marriage.
The blowup part tends to happen after a couple become engaged. One of them (in heterosexual couples this is usually, but not always, the man) asks the other to sign a prenuptial agreement - which is so offensive to that person that they break off the engagement, or at least threaten to.
Usually the prenup is introduced by the one with more money — often at the urging of misguided but well-meaning friends or disapproving parents — and the fiancee will react badly because the prenup is, by its very nature, a sign of mistrust. This sometimes is also used to foil the plan of a Gold Digger, usually involving a third party who suggests the prenup to the target of the Gold Digger. In more idealistic shows, the prenup will be discarded and the wedding will go on.
Prenuptial agreements came into public consciousness in the United States in the 1980s, and most examples will come from that time period onwards.
Beer commercial: Man goes to bar to fetch drinks, Fiancee gloats to his friends how she's going to take him for everything he's got. When Man returns, Friends get him to drink beer, which is so delicious he forgets what he was about to do. Friends claim he was about to ask Fiancee for a prenup.
The main case in Liar Liar involves a Gold Digger attempting to get half of her husband's assets, despite the fact that the prenup he had her sign before marriage stipulated that, if she was unfaithful, she gets nothing. The husband's case seems ironclad, and there is even an audio recording of the wife having sex with her lover. The protagonist is an Amoral Attorney representing her who is unable to lie for one day (thanks to a wish made by his son) and, thus, can't win the case in his normal manner (he can't even ask a question that he knows will be answered by a lie). Interestingly, the husband was willing to settle for a decent sum of money despite the prenup in order to spare their children the unfortunate experience, but the wife wanted more. The protagonist wins the case by sheer chance, when he discovers that the wife was underage when she got married but lied about it. Thus, the prenup is invalid, and the wife is granted half of the assets. Then the protagonist realizes the mistake he made when he sees the wife trying to continue the battle by demanding full custody of the kids, despite the fact that she doesn't care about them, while her ex-husband is a loving father, all to get extra money from child support payments.
At the beginning, it is the protagonist who convinces the wife to fight the prenup in court, claiming that her husband was the one who drove her into the arms of another man. The film makes it pretty clear, though, that nothing of the sort happened.
In "Deeply, Desperately", the second of Lucy Valentine novels, Emerson finds out the hard way that her fiance, Joseph Betancourt, was planning to ask her to sign a prenuptial agreement. Joseph thought he had the upper hand, but he'd given her a "Them or Me" ultimatum before they (being Lucy and Marisol) revealed he'd been lying to her about hanging with his parents while he was really with a lawyer getting the prenup drawn up.
L.A. Law: Stuart asks Ann to sign (in this instance, she refused, and they got married anyway.)
In one The Love Boat episode, this was part of a subplot: a man getting over a very economically taxing divorce tries to court several women on the boat who immediately shun him when he asks for them to sign a pre-nup (while dating.) Eventually he decides not to do it for the woman he ends up falling in love with... who at the end of the episode asks him to sign one, having also been through a similar divorce.
The Nanny. Maxwell asked Fran, Fran freaked out. In a slight subversion, upon reflection, she decides it is just a piece of paper that she would never need to use anyway, and so offers to sign it. However, in the interim, Max decides he doesn't need it and instead gives her the adoption papers for his children.
In an earlier episode, Sylvia is berating Fran for letting her work interfere too much with her private time (which, to Sylvia, is "find a man and get married" time.) Frustrated, Fran then says that she did meet someone: an investment banker work zillions. She then mentioned that the one condition was that she had to sign a pre-nup. As Sylvia collapses in a faint, Fran then retorts, "See Ma, I could kill you if I want."
Subverted on Seinfeld: Kramer suggests this as a way for George to make Susan break up with him. Susan just laughs, because she's the one with the money.
Appears on Sex and the City. Trey springs a prenup on Charlotte late in the wedding process, which is considered pretty bad form. The agreement contains an unusual clause that, in the event they divorce, gives Charlotte an increasing percentage of $500,000.00 for every year that she and Trey were married. Charlotte negotiates with Trey's mother to increase the payout to One Million Dollars. ("I'm worth a Million", she says.)
Considering how quickly that marriage went down the drain it was actually VERY smart on the mother's part to demand it. Though the couple split pretty amicably and it's doubtful Charlotte would have done anything.
It's mostly Trey's mother who is determined to leave Chalotte with nothing from the marriage. Trey is happy to let Charlotte have what she wants, while all she wants is to keep their apartment.
Used in Shakespeare Retold - The Taming of the Shrew. Bianca, a supermodel in this version of the story, asks her gorgeous-but-penniless fiance to sign one. He is insulted, and refuses. Katherine, Bianca's older sister, tells her that if she doesn't trust him enough to marry him without the prenup then she shouldn't be marrying him at all.
On Newhart, Stephanie's father wanted Michael to sign a prenup. Stephanie didn't care one way or the other, but when Michael was uncomfortable with signing, Stephanie began to doubt his love for her.
Rom and Leeta on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine briefly break off their engagement when she refuses to sign a Ferengi prenup-for pretty good reason, since it would've handed all her property over to him.
On Two and a Half Men, Charlie suggests a prenup to his fiancee, then gets angry when she readily agrees because she owns a good deal of real estate she hadn't mentioned to him yet.
When Harry from Night Court is about to get married, Dan brings him what looks like a condom. When Harry turns it down, Dan expertly unfolds what then turns out to be a multiple pages long document, saying it's really a pre-nup, to Harry's even greater dismay.
Harry: Those things really take away the romantism and spontaneity out of a wedding.
In How I Met Your Mother, Barney and Quinn break up after a fight over ridiculously long and idiotic pre-nups, when they realize they don't trust each other.
On Boston Legal, Ivan Tiggs was trying to rekindle a pairing with Shirley, though he was a newlywed. The new bride was suspicious of her husband despite his assurances that he was faithful. In a Crowning Moment of Awesome, Shirley suggested a "Post-Nuptual" agreement, whereby he loses everything if he cheats. Given his assurances of fidelity from just a moment ago, he should be eager to sign, right?!?
On a nonfiction crime show on Investigation Discovery, there was a gold-digging tramp who married this rich mofo, and then divorced him after a couple weeks solely to take half of his assets. Unfortunately, nobody told her the massive flaw in her plan; you only get half of as much was there when you were married. So since she divorced him after such a short period of time, she didn't get a damn thing. Of course, she then killed him.
An episode of Lie to Me has a wealthy client hire the Lightman Group to investigate his fiancée on whether or not she knew he was rich before getting involved with him. It turns out that she did know but genuinely loves him for who he is. While he is a little upset that she lied to him, Loker tells him that him being attracted to her partly because she's beautiful is just as shallow. The guy seems mollified, but Loker still tells him to get a prenup.