The ‘Relationship Agreement’. A term many of us have become aware of since its introduction in popular American sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The relationship between two lead characters, Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler ‘Shamy’, is quirky and rigorously defined. The relationship agreement serves a comedy purpose following the awkward relationship of the two as they dip their toe into the world of dating.
The butt of many jokes the agreement pokes fun at numerous relatable gripes lots of couples will suffer through, so we have to ask ‘how can ‘relationship agreements’ work in real world relationships?’
We’ve probably all heard of a Nuptial Agreement and interestingly they have become an increasingly popular tool where a couple wish to regulate their financial arrangements in the unfortunate event of that their relationship should break down.
Whereas Nuptial Agreements are binding in many European countries, a number of US states, Australia and New Zealand; in England and Wales they are not. However following the landmark case of Radmacher v Granatino such agreements carry decisive weight.
In England and Wales the Court has a wide discretion when dividing up the couple’s assets. These assets may include premarital or post separation assets, those which have been inherited or are held on trust. The discretionary approach can lead to uncertainty which for a couple can add stress to an already difficult time in their lives and can be expensive if there are extensive negotiations or the Court becomes involved in making a decision.
Nuptial Agreements can help protect assets such as those received by way of an inheritance, investment or acquired through entrepreneurial acumen effectively “ring-fencing” those assets.
A Court is more likely to uphold the terms of an agreement if it was entered into freely with no question of duress. It is therefore recommended that the party’s each take independent legal advice from a family lawyer to show that no pressure has been applied and both are entering into the agreement freely with a full understanding of the terms agreed. There should be full and frank disclosure of each party’s financial position again to ensure a clear understanding.
The agreement should be entered into some time prior to the wedding and it is certainly recommended no less than 28 days beforehand. Once again this would remove the suggestion of any pressure being brought to bear on the other.
The terms of such an agreement must be considered fair both in relation to each party and also any children of the family.
The Reconciliation Contract
Although initial focus of this article has been on Nuptial Agreements, following recent reports that Angelina Jolie is thinking of holding off her divorce from Brad Pitt, the media has made reference to “a Reconciliation Contract” which are gaining in popularity in the US.
A Reconciliation Contract is a form of Nuptial Agreement designed to help the couple work through their difficulties with a view to saving the marriage and to provide future arrangements should the attempted reconciliation be unsuccessful.
The contract can be as broad as it is long and may include aspirational provisions such as the couple agreeing to carving out time to spend with one another. Although this may seem novel, fans of The Big Bang Theory will begin to see familiarities with the Relationship Contract drawn up between Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler as it sets out their rights and responsibilities. The aspirational idea of setting the boundaries for relationships gains in popularity when another couple try to work through problems in their relationship, they ask Sheldon to write them up a Relationship Agreement tailored to their needs. The resulting document prohibits Leonard Hofstadter from playing video games in his underwear and stops his wife Penny from saying things are “fine” if they’re not.
Contrary to popular belief one of the roles of the family lawyer is to discuss with their client whether a reconciliation is possible and to help signpost them to resources to explore this further.
In a situation where the reconciliation fails and a divorce become inevitable, this form of a Post Nuptial Agreement could protect the clients from the uncertainty, acrimony and expense which can otherwise arise. Given the changing attitude of the Court in relation to Nuptial Agreements there does not seem to be any reason why a Reconciliation Contract could not be relied upon and awarded significant weight.
Not all imports from the US are necessarily welcomed but these Contracts could herald positive steps for many couples and are likely to gain support from organisations such as Resolution as well family law professionals committed to helping clients find the best way forward for themselves and their families.
Article written by Grant Cameron