Just in case it all goes wrong

We wish them well. But the family record suggests that a pre-nuptial agreement might not be a bad idea

The nation - or some of it anyway - thrilled last week to pictures of the newly engaged Prince Edward and his bride-to-be Sophie Rhys-Jones, as they smiled into each other's eyes and plighted their troths. But it has to be admitted that the Windsor scions' track record is far from perfect when it comes to marriage; so far, three fairytale weddings have ended in divorce, and there has been much unseemly and horribly public wrangling over assets and property and allowances and titles. Royal weddings are not the only ones to end in disarray; Britain's divorce rate is the highest in Europe and supporting lasting marriages is a Government priority. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, recently unveiled Britain's first family policy paper. It included proposals to make pre-nuptial agreements legally binding. Could Edward and Sophie set an example as royal pre-nup pioneers?

At present English couples are free to draw up pre-nuptial agreements, but judges who rule on splitting the assets in divorce cases are not obliged to take them into account. In other European countries, the US and Muslim states, however, legally binding pre-nuptial agreements are standard. In the US, as well as dividing property and assets, couples can draw up agreements covering virtually all aspects of their lives, from how often they spend an evening together to who does the washing- up. It remains to be seen precisely what Rod Stewart's pre-nuptial agreement with Rachel Hunter consisted of. But in all likelihood it will mean the rock singer, whose split from his wife was announced last week, hanging on to most of his pounds 60 million fortune.

When Soon Yi Previn married Woody Allen, she gave up all claims to his cash and agreed to live in her own apartment, visiting him only twice a week. It's unlikely that Edward will want to confine Sophie to her current flat in Coleherne Court; after all, if they want to avoid each other in their stately pile, Bagshot Park in Surrey, they'll have plenty of space in which to do so.

According to lawyer Michael Drake, in this country pre-nuptial agreements tend to ignore the more intimate areas of married life and stick to the prosaic: bricks and mortar, stocks and shares. Mr Drake, partner and head of the family law department of Collyer-Bristow, is about to produce a training video for other lawyers on pre-nuptial agreements. He has looked after "a handful" of agreements over the last few months, most involving a foreign partner or before a second marriage where substantial assets are involved.

THERE is more to an agreement, he says, than simply deciding who gets the wedding-present cutlery and who has custody of the dog. "They are unromantic and complicated," he says. "Each partner has to be prepared to disclose all their financial interests, and the couple should be represented separately." And, he explains, an agreement that can predict how a couple's life will evolve is virtually impossible to draft. "Anything from a lottery win, serious illness, redundancy or, most especially, the arrival of children, can throw life into confusion. You can't draft an agreement to cover every eventuality." (Below are his suggestions on issues that Ms Rhys-Jones might consider).

Margaret Bennett, a lawyer who specialises in family law, often draws up pre-nups for foreign couples - in some cultures, negotiating a dowry is still the norm. She is rarely asked to draw one up for an English couple. "Until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, women's property automatically became their husband's, so there was no question of agreements between spouses," she says. "Also there is the assumption that any contract between husband and wife is not regarded as legally binding. And in England we have a quite clear system of separate property - property in the name of one person belongs to that person. The situation is different in places like California, where possessions in marriage become community property."

Ms Bennett believes that a settlement on Sophie might be a better option. A sum of money would be put in trust so that funds could be made available in the event of a divorce. "With the royals, there are all kinds of issues that arise from the PR disaster of Diana and Charles's breakdown," she says. "In any agreement between these two I would expect to see a confidentiality clause and something about future standards of living - paying for staff, for example. But a settlement would probably be more appropriate."

Their situation, says Ms Bennett, is different from that of anyone else in the country, even the wealthiest. "Once you are part of the royal family, for example, you can never go on holiday without the press following - you would need some kind of protection for ever afterwards. It is a lesson learned from the case of Diana - you can't just cut ex-wives loose." And, she points out, there are only a few months to go till the wedding. "They are cutting it fine. They will have to do something to ensure that all those peripheral disasters don't happen again - like the Duchess of York not being able to pay her debts, for example."

Simon Pigott, a partner in the law firm Levison Meltzer Pigott, is usually only asked to draw up pre-nuptial agreements where the engaged have substantial assets. "We mustn't make the mistake of assuming that all members of the royal family have lots of money," he says. "Prince Edward is not on the civil list, and on the face of it doesn't have huge personal wealth. He is not in the same bracket as Prince Charles." He believes pre-nuptial agreements can be unfair, and lack the flexibility of the current system. "They don't take into account factors like how long the marriage has lasted. One of the advantages of our system, and one of the reasons why we don't have pre-nuptial agreements, is that the court will exercise its discretion and has no hard and fast formulae to follow."

THE EXAMPLE of stars who take steps to safeguard their fortunes from relatively poor spouses, give the impression that pre-nuptial agreements are a modern, rather outre transatlantic phenomenon. But their pedigree is really much longer. One of the oldest examples, says Chris Barton, professor of family law at Staffordshire University, is an Orthodox Jewish version, more than 2,000 years old, that gives rights to divorced women. Professor Barton points out that in England, too, holding on to assets is hardly a new concept. "Landed estate owners want to hang on to their brass and stop gold-diggers," he observes.

He believes contracts regulating how a couple will live, known as working relationship contracts, might be more practical than they appear. "There are all kinds of issues that can be dealt with, from how many children they'll have and what their names will be to who does the washing- up. It ensures that couples start out on the same basis, and they might realise then that they are not suited. Couples have to resolve things, and if they do it in advance so much the better." Some do make private deals. For example, William and Ffion Hague have agreed to spend one night alone together each week, plus Sundays, one weekend a month, and two two-week holidays a year.

Informal arrangements are the best kind, says Professor Barton. "Pre- nuptial agreements are cracked up as a pre-emptive way of dealing with problems, but I suspect they will simply lead to more litigation." The legislation now being considered to make pre-nups binding could have loopholes, one of which is if the agreement is deemed to have become "unjust". Professor Barton suspects that this rather loose term could lead to endless legal to-ing and fro-ing "Either you make the buggers stick or you do not," he says. "Otherwise it is just giving fat-cat lawyers another bite at the cherry."

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Life and Style
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

    £16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

    The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

    £35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'