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A Question of Faith: Does a prenuptial agreement invalidate a sacred marriage?

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Q: Does a prenuptial agreement invalidate a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church? I have heard that it is only a legal arrangement, but others say it renders the marriage null because the spouses are not giving all of themselves. Please explain.

A: The existence of a prenuptial agreement is not automatically considered a reason for a marriage to be declared null by a Catholic tribunal, but a “prenup” can be problematic from a Catholic perspective. Such contracts usually secure property and financial rights in case of divorce. Since entering into a prenuptial agreement can indicate a predisposition to see marriage as temporary and not “till death do us part,” the reason a couple entered into a prenuptial agreement is essential to understanding the potential impact on the marriage’s validity.

For a marriage to be sacramental, it must be contracted between two validly baptized Christians who are free to marry, who without coercion consent to the union, who intend to be married for life, who resolve to be faithful to the other, and who are open to the possibility of children. For a Catholic, the wedding must take place in the presence of two witnesses and a priest or deacon (unless the bishop grants a dispensation).

To be married validly, the couple must intend marriage the way the church does: that marriage is a partnership of the totality of life in which the spouse offers all of himself or herself to the other. Entering into a prenuptial agreement may indicate that the spouse is not giving all to the other – and instead, thinking not of “ours,” but “mine” and “his or hers.” Couples entering into “prenups” also might not intend marriage as indissoluble, considering the possibility of divorce by putting certain safeguards in place to protect their property if the relationship ends. Prenuptial agreements can also potentially show that one of the spouses has placed a precondition on the marriage (i.e., “I will marry you, if …”) and any marriage subject to a condition about the future is not valid (Code of Canon Law, 1102.1). Prenuptial agreements do not render a sacramental marriage null, but the presence of a prenuptial agreement could show that something was missing in the union that caused it not to be a valid, sacramental marriage.

Despite concerns about prenuptial agreements, the church does not always discourage them. In some cases, a prenuptial agreement may be in accord with a Catholic understanding of marriage. For instance, in the case of a second marriage between spouses with adult children, the contract might be necessary to maintain inheritance. Such an agreement might not envision a future divorce but might assure the legal claim to property in the case of the death of one of the spouses. In this case, the agreement does not necessarily envision the possibility of separation or divorce. Alternatively, a prenuptial agreement may be required if one spouse is the owner of a business or is a major stockholder in a company, no matter personal belief about, or commitment to, the marriage’s indissolubility.

Entering into marriage with the intention to give entirely of oneself helps marriages to flourish. Studies have shown that unions with joint financial accounts and which are open to children, for instance, are more likely to thrive. The church encourages couples to enter into marriage with the graces of the sacrament, trusting in the Lord to help the couple be faithful to the vows they have spoken: giving of themselves completely “all the days of their lives.”

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