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 the 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 do so.
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 fiancée 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 the bar to fetch drinks, Fiancée 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 Fiancée for a prenup.
- Forms the main plot the second and third acts of Private Benjamin. Henri tries to "remake" Judy and also insists she sign a prenuptial agreement (in French) to protect his family home held for centuries.
- 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.
- In "Deeply, Desperately", the second Lucy Valentine novel, 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.
- Frasier and Lilith fought over this in "Bidding on the Boys". She refused, and the wedding proceeded. And then their marriage fell apart. The moral of the story, kids? Prenups are your friends. Of course, his divorce was nowhere near as bad as his brother Niles' would be later on in Frasier.
- Averted with the marriage between bartender Woody and the exceedingly rich Kelly... with Woody asking for it. "I don't want her taking half my stuff." Naturally, it isn't an issue.
- In Frasier, Niles during his divorce describes the depths to which Maris would stoop for the trial.
Niles: When we were courting, I sent her a Valentine that said: "You're the girl my heart adores, everything I have is yours." Now they're calling it a prenup.
- Played straight in Corner Gas, episode "Wedding Card", when Oscar and Emma decide to get married, and Lacey "convinces" Oscar to ask for a prenup. This was due to her mistakenly thinking that Oscar can't read, and she interpreted his desire to "put things in writing" a bit differently than he had intended. Emma reacts how you'd expect, and Oscar winds up in a neck brace... but only because he tripped and fell while walking backwards away from Emma.
- Happened on Diff'rent Strokes when Dixie Carter joined the cast. The prenup was discarded and they married anyway.
- On The Golden Girls, Stan and Dorothy (who are divorced) rekindle their romance and decide to remarry. Shortly before they do, Stan - who has recently made a success of himself by patenting an invention - asks Dorothy to sign a prenup. Having previously been his wife for more than 20 years, she is outraged by the idea, and ends the engagement.
- 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 prenup (while dating.) Eventually, he decides not to do it when he falls in love with a woman... who, at the end of the episode, asks him to sign one, having also been through a similar divorce.
- The Nanny:
- Maxwell asks Fran, Fran freaks 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 so that she can be their mother legally.
- 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 prenup. As Sylvia collapses in a faint, Fran then retorts, "See Ma, I could kill you if I want."
- Subverted on Seinfeld: When George is trying to weasel out of his upcoming marriage to Susan, Kramer suggests deliberately invoking this trope so she'll break up with him. It doesn't work. Susan just laughs in his face and says she'll happily sign the prenup since she already makes way more money than him, so what does she need his money for?
- 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 that 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.)
- Used in Shakespeare Retold - The Taming of the Shrew. Bianca, a supermodel in this version of the story, asks her gorgeous-but-penniless fiancé 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 the other hand, Rom himself lost everything he had by signing a prenup with his first wife's father without reading it (a huge no-no in Ferengi culture). She left him after a few years, leaving him with nothing but their son Nog.
- 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 Evelyn is going to get remarried to a rich man, he says their love is strong enough that they don't need a prenup. When he dies shortly after the wedding, suspicion naturally falls on her. Turns out he was actually a conman who dismissed the prenup so that he could get Evelyn's money.
- 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 prenup, to Harry's even greater dismay.
Harry: Those things really take away the romanticism and spontaneity out of a wedding.
Dan: You're still confusing it with a condom.
- On The Big Bang Theory, Bernadette's father wants Howard to sign a prenup.
- In How I Met Your Mother, Barney and Quinn break up after a fight over ridiculously long and idiotic prenups, 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-Nuptial" 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 of 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 as 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.
- Entourage: When E and Sloan become engaged, Sloan's father insists that E sign a prenuptial agreement that will prevent him from getting any of Sloan's family fortune if the two of them get a divorce. E is insulted by the idea of signing a prenup and the fact that Sloan sides with her father eventually leads to them breaking off the engagement.
- Shows up a number of times in The Good Wife, with one of the most noteworthy examples being how the firm negotiated the prenup of a woman to recurring character Neil Gross, and then a few seasons later (after the firm has split), they end up on both sides of the divorce, trying to maintain and invalidate it.
- This apparently happened between Marillion's former frontman, Fish, and fellow singer Heather Findlay (formerly with Mostly Autumn), even after the wedding had been paid for and invitations sent.