With this contract, I thee wed!

`FOR richer, for poorer'' - or until the prenuptial agreement goes into effect. Is law and marriage replacing love and marriage?

It would seem so by the proliferation of news media accounts of what has, in effect, become anticipated divorce.

We only hear, naturally, of bliss gone sour and contracts challenged.

The message, however, is clear: If you can't prevent divorce, take steps before marriage to avoid a bad divorce.

Lawyers are only too happy to spell out how this can be accomplished - including penning a prenuptial contract.

And consumer advice is now available on the ``dos'' and ``don'ts'' of writing such contracts.

U.S. News & World Report, for example, recently offered a column under ``News You Can Use'' on ``Coming to Terms Before the Wedding.''

It is suggested that a pre-altar contract laying out who would get what property, assets, and other holdings in the event of a breakup might lead to greater ``peace of mind'' for those getting ready to tie the marital knot.

This piece enumerates some ``how to's'' - including providing for children of a previous marriage. And if more detailed information is needed, it can be obtained from the American Bar Association's law-and-marriage legal guide at a cost of $3.

Who needs Ann Landers and Dr. Ruth when we have the ABA?

This, of course, is not funny stuff. It is serious business. And it tells us something about ourselves we perhaps don't really want to know.

In part, it is this: Too often marriage is seen as a legal arrangement rather than a union of hearts. And it is entered into with a mental safety net that provides, if necessary, a way out - through divorce. A prenuptial agreement supposedly makes such dissolution more equitable.

But for whom?

Studies continue to show that the have-nots in marriage have even less in divorce. And that is almost always the woman.

The female partner is often impoverished by the dissolution of a marriage, despite alimony and child-care awards. The latter are sometimes inadequate and not easy to collect.

Further, the ending of a marriage for a woman can mean a drastic change of life style and the necessity to get a job outside the home or start a career for the first time.

Few premarital contracts take these intangibles into consideration.

The rationale for these contracts is that one prospective mate enters into the union with substantially more fiscal assets than the other. Often these possessions have been accrued during previous marriages. The practicality of sophisticated modern life, it is reasoned, refutes the old axiom that ``what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours'' - especially when you are no longer mine and I'm no longer yours.

Divorce is a fact of life, we are told. ``Till death us do part'' is ceremonial, not realistic. Prenuptial agreements keep things in perspective. They can always be challenged later on. Courts have voided them, especially when fraud is found or hidden assets uncovered. Judges have also reinterpreted these contracts where there was clear inequity among the parties.

So why the fuss?

The whole business is cockeyed, that's why.

Greater emphasis should be placed on making marriage work - not on providing individuals protection if it does not.

Sadly, many of those taking vows today come from broken homes. They say they are afraid they will end up the same way their parents did - in divorce court. Some have long resisted marriage - rationalizing that ``living together'' creates no obligations. And we have all heard the argument: It is only a piece of paper.

It's not just a piece of paper. Marriage and the family continue to be the cement of society. The vast majority of those who enter into marriage still do so because of a deep love for and commitment to each other and a desire to cling to common spiritual and moral values.

Contracts can neither perpetuate, nor invalidate, true affection.

Prenuptial agreements may be justified in certain cases. They should not be viewed, however, as a rationale for divorce.

A Thursday column

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