If there’s one thing Crazy Rich Asians taught us, it’s that falling in love with someone significantly wealthier than you can get, well, complicated. Tensions will almost inevitably arise when two people come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Someone who grew up in a working-class family might be a penny pincher, while someone who came from money may not think twice about spending it. Reconciling those differences is often easier said than done, especially because money is a sensitive subject for many people. But if you’re getting serious about someone—and they happen to be in a cushier financial spot than you—it’s important to prepare accordingly.
“If you are marrying into a wealthy family, you may be in for a surprise, as you may not be aware of the magnitude of the wealth until shortly before the marriage proposal—think *Crazy Rich Asians—*or even after the nuptials have taken place,” explains Boryana Zamanoff, family wealth strategist at BNY Mellon Wealth Management.
That’s exactly what happened to Emilia Smith*, who tied the knot with her husband in 2010. It wasn’t until after they said “I do” that she realized just what she had married into.
“We were visiting my husband’s uncle at his cottage,” Smith recounts. “We were walking along the lake, and my husband mentioned to me about how his investments had grown over the past year. I was like, ‘Your what?’”
Smith was “very surprised,” both by the fact that he had the money to begin with, and that he hadn’t told her about it in the two years they dated before getting hitched.
“It just wasn’t a big deal to him, but it was a very big deal to me,” Smith explains. “I didn't know how much he had in the bank and in investments. I found out that he had a good chunk—and it was growing.” And it didn’t stop there. “Then I found out about family money and inheritances. Stuff I never had.”
According to Zamanoff, high-net-worth families generally fall into two categories when it comes to dealing with generational wealth: “Let’s prepare the kids for the money” or “They don’t need to know anything until we are dead.” Both types of parents have their rationale for choosing a path of relative openness or secrecy about the family wealth.
“If you happen to marry into a family that’s focused on educating the next generation about the wealth and the family’s values, chances are that your future spouse may have shared some of the family vision with you,” Zamanoff explains. “Assuming a significant difference in wealth, either group of parents will likely strongly encourage or require a prenuptial agreement.”
In this case, you might be expected to attend a family meeting with other advisers such as an attorney, wealth manager, and accountant. Be open and listen to all offered advice, but also be aware of when you’ll need to bring in your own team of advisers.
For Smith, though, it never reached that point. “We didn’t have a prenup,” she says. “He didn’t ask for one. Now, all the money is in both our names in case one of us passes, so we don’t have financial hassles and can focus on our daughter.”
Despite that, Smith still isn’t so sure about claiming the money as hers. “I always say it’s his money, and he always says it’s our money,” she shares. “It is heartwarming and loving and generous, but it also makes me feel uneasy and uncomfortable because I didn’t bring that money to the relationship, and I really have nothing to do with it.”
Brianna Ramirez* realized that her fiancé came from a wealthy family early on in their relationship. “It became apparent when I spent time at their summer/winter home,” she says. “We are opposites. He is more conservative and less of a risk taker—that is how he grew up. I am a carefree spirit and dream big. There is a beautiful middle ground and we both need a bit more of each other in one another, so though it’s difficult at times, it works.”
The couple is getting married next month, and unlike Smith and her husband, they did opt to have prenup. “I own a business and so does he,” Ramirez explains. “He wanted to protect what he has earned to date, and I wanted to protect my future since I feel I’ve just hit my earning potential in my own career. I’ve worked on myself a lot, so I don’t see financials as getting in the way of what we have.”
Zamanoff acknowledges that thinking about breaking up isn’t exactly something most couples want to do, especially as they prepare to walk down the aisle. But if one spouse has substantially more assets—either inherited or self-made—they would likely want to make sure they won’t lose or split them if a divorce should happen down the road. Plus, more people are getting married, or remarried, later in life. That’s worth considering when so much is on the line.
“They may have both assets and liabilities that wouldn’t be fully disclosed without entering into a prenuptial agreement,” Zamanoff says. “If you are being asked to enter into a prenup by your spouse-to-be, retain a good attorney, ask a lot of questions, and don’t sign anything you don’t fully understand. An open and detailed conversation about financial goals, income, spending, debt, and the mechanics of daily financial life before the marriage is essential to get the couple on the right footing financially.”