Murdoch millions and Zuckerberg date nights: Prenups are routine for the super-rich… are we next?
They might share their happy news through an Instagram photoshoot, they might pose for an OK! cover or, like nonagenarian groom-to-be Rupert Murdoch, they might give an exclusive interview to a newspaper they just happen to own. However a celebrity chooses to announce their engagement, though, you can safely bet that behind the scenes, teams of lawyers will be hard at work assembling a prenuptial agreement – a legal document laying out exactly how the new couple’s assets will be split in the event of, well, their split.
“With ultra-wealthy clients... there will be such complex legalities and trust affairs that it’s unimaginable not to have a cast iron prenup in place,” explains Charlotte Leyshon, director of Lux Family Law; as a trainee solicitor, she was part of the team employed by Meg Mathews in her divorce from Noel Gallagher. A couple must be upfront about all their financial arrangements (the impetus, no surprise, usually comes from the wealthier half) – and, when they’re getting ready for their big day, must think about where their relationship might end.
Billionaire media mogul Murdoch proposed to Ann Lesley Smith on St Patrick’s Day; he gave the scoop to The New York Post shortly afterwards. He and fourth wife Jerry Hall, who divorced last summer, allegedly had an agreement in place that kept the succession plan for his media empire intact. Hall is thought to have received a multimillion-pound settlement, as well as Holmwood House, the former couple’s Oxfordshire mansion (“Don’t worry, Rupert Murdoch remains rich despite finalising financial details of Jerry Hall divorce,” film industry bible Deadline assured its readers last summer, tongue firmly in cheek). Also in the headlines recently? Reports of Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady’s “ironclad” prenup, which supposedly allowed their divorce to be settled quickly.
Richard Hogwood is a partner and lawyer at Stewarts; their divorce and family team has previously represented the likes of Guy Ritchie and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He often tells clients to think of a prenup as, ironically, “almost like an anti-lawyer insurance policy. In the same way that you hope your house isn’t flooded or burned down, you hope your marriage works out, [but] even if it doesn’t work out, you don’t want to waste lots of money on litigation”. In other words, it’s a way of (hopefully) avoiding a costly legal battle further down the line. “You spend a lot less on lawyers if you’ve thrashed it all out before you even get going, than at the end of a marriage, when everyone thinks everything’s up for grabs,” agrees Leyshon.
While they’ve been common in America and in mainland Europe for decades, prenups are “relatively new things” in the UK, says Henry Hood, senior partner and head of the family department at Hunters Law. For a long time, he says, “in England they were simply not worth the paper they were written on”. That changed in 2010, thanks to Radmacher v Granatino, a landmark divorce case in which a German heiress named Katrin Radmacher attempted to block her Italian ex-husband Nicolas from accessing her fortune. Although prenups are still “not, strictly speaking, binding”, the judgment from the case means you can expect “that the court will uphold an agreement if it has been properly entered into and the impact of it does not cause great unfairness”, Hood explains.
If the terms of the prenup meet the needs of the couple, it will usually stand up. Need, though, can be difficult to quantify. “It’s a question of what’s a reasonable figure for a house?” says Alistair Myles, founding partner at Ribet Myles LLP. “Do they need £5m, £20m? Do you need a swimming pool?” Divorce cases that usually get into the press, he adds, “are normally the ones where one party is saying, ‘let’s stick to the prenup’, and the other one is saying, ‘well, hang on a second – that’s not fair’”.
For second marriages and beyond, a prenup can “put to bed any concerns” about what a new spouse might inherit. “If there are grown children who are expecting various things to come their way... the stepmother is a threat, unless the potential they might have [to make] a claim after divorce is parked and sorted out,” Hood says.
They simply don’t want to sign one – you can have some people who just find it quite a repugnant concept
A couple might not even be wealthy quite yet – they might be anticipating a major inheritance, or plan on making a mint further down the line. “Entrepreneurs who think that they’re going to make a lot of money in the future might want to invest in one as well,” says Rebecca Cockcroft, who heads the family team at Payne Hicks Beach. “A spouse might think, I’m going to make £100m – I don’t want £50m of that to go to my husband or wife on a divorce,” she adds. Some might want custody of a beloved dog if things fall apart. “I have a running joke with a colleague about whether one can or should include pets in a prenup,” Hogwood says. “It has been done a couple of times, [but] it’s not the most common thing.” A jet-setting couple “with connections in different countries” might end up with an “omnibus” document, filled with advice for different places. “The idea is no one should be incentivised to divorce in one place rather than the other.”
If an agreement was signed under duress, it is more likely to be challenged – lawyers recommend that it “should be executed at least 28 days before any wedding and ideally before then,” Cockcroft explains. “You want to start negotiating it months in advance so that you don’t run out of time, and before any invites go out.” Of course, things don’t always pan out that way. “I did a case years ago, where they were getting married on the Saturday and they had a big evening party for the guests the night before at Babington House,” Myles recalls. “I think the husband-to-be suddenly whipped out this piece of paper from his lawyers and gave it to his wife to sign. Obviously, that one did not get upheld.”
Prenups haven’t always had the best reputation. The phrase still conjures visions of spouses being left with nothing – but that stereotype isn’t necessarily fair. “I think the public perception is often that it’s there for the wealthy person to take advantage of the less wealthy person, but the reality is... the more generous you are, the more protection you’re ultimately likely to get from this document,” Hogwood says. “Everyone’s a winner if you’re a bit more generous at the beginning – your insurance policy is likely to be more of use than if you’re too mean.” If an agreement is obviously unfair, “then there’s no point in having it... you might as well rip it up”, Leyshom adds.
There might still be room for some unusual provisions, though. Trawl through any online round-up of celebrity prenups and the phrase “infidelity clause” crops up over again; the likes of Justin Timberlake and Michael Douglas are rumoured to have agreed to pay their wives a lump sum if they cheat. “I’ve seen prenups, but not for a while, where [the couple] try to make different provisions based on whatever the reason for the marriage breakdown has been,” says Myles. Terms like these are more common in American settlements but are “not hugely enforceable” under English law, which has now “done away with any kind of fault-based claim”. They might just create yet more conflict further down the line. “What if they don’t agree if someone’s being unfaithful?” Hogwood notes. “Do you end up then having to have separate court proceedings just on this point? [...] The purpose of this document is to reduce conflict rather than create satellite litigations on other points.”
In the US, these “lifestyle” clauses might refer to anything from drug abuse to gross stipulations about weight gain. After getting engaged to Jessica Simpson, NFL player Tony Romo allegedly came up with a prenup clause stating that if she exceeded 135lb, she would then owe him $500,000 for every pound above that amount (the couple never married – I can’t imagine why). Some are rather sweet. Priscilla Chan requested that she has one “date night” and 100 minutes of time alone every week with husband Mark Zuckerberg. During that time, they aren’t allowed on Facebook – we can only hope this has since been updated to preclude hanging out in the Metaverse with Nick Clegg. For Leyshon, this specificity reflects how prenups are viewed in the States: “They are seen as contracts, pure and simple.”
In the run-up to a wedding, lawyers can sometimes feel like ghosts at the feast, asking couples to consider the breakdown of their relationship when they’re just getting started. “Some people feel really strongly about it, and just think it’s really unromantic and unfair,” says Cockcroft. “They simply don’t want to sign one – so you can have some people who just find it quite a repugnant concept.” For the uber-wealthy, these arrangements will be more “routine”, Leyshom explains, but for “footballers, rugby players, high-profile people”, these discussions can feel more sensitive. “You’re working towards this really happy, special day coming together. And then you have to kind of drill into – ‘what would you, the stronger party, give me, the weaker party, if we split up?’ And it really can cause quite a lot of upset.” Ultimately, though, she encourages clients to be pragmatic. If you didn’t have a will in place, she says, “you’d be seen as being quite reckless and silly”.
Indeed, prenups are slowly becoming more widespread – even among those of us with a bang-average net worth. In 2022, Hogwood’s firm saw a 51.2 per cent increase in enquiries compared to the previous year, while recent YouGov data found that 47 per cent of women see prenups as a good idea, versus 38 per cent of men (which rather puts paid to Kanye’s “Gold Digger” lyrics). “I think more people are recognising that they’re not scary, and they’re not just for celebrities,” Hogwood says. “[Like] having a will in place or lasting power of attorney, it is just one of those slightly boring life admin things that we should at least think about,” he adds. Perhaps in a decade or so, they’ll no longer be the preserve of multi-millionaires – they might be as normal as setting up a Splitwise account with your partner.