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Photo Credit: Wang Siqi, design elements from VCG

Before Forever: The Rise of Prenuptial Agreements in China

More young Chinese are signing prenuptial agreements before marriage, but are they enforceable?

In January 2023, 27-year-old Mei stood on the threshold of marriage, contemplating the symbols of love and commitment. But it wasn’t the sparkle of a diamond ring or the fragrance of roses Mei sought to mark this pivotal moment with her future husband; instead, she yearned for something more substantial—a prenuptial agreement to safeguard her rights.

“In traditional Chinese ideas of marriage, women are often placed in a disadvantaged position,” Mei, who asked to be identified by her surname, tells TWOC. She explains the disproportionate burden of housework, childbirth, and childcare shouldered by married women. “I’m also traversing a vast distance from my roots in Wuhan, Hubei province, to Beijing for marriage. Seeking some semblance of material assurance isn’t just a whim; it’s foundational,” she says, explaining her motivation for seeking contractual guarantees for her assets, such as property, before tying the knot.

Mei recalls her husband’s initial skepticism, even hurt, at the proposition. He interpreted a prenuptial agreement as a shadow of doubt cast over his intentions and only gave in when Mei insisted she wouldn’t get married without one. “He talked about a future filled with kindness and care, promises of home ownership shares and financial support. But to me, those were just ephemeral words, lacking the solidity of action,” Mei says.

A Chinese couple adds their fingerprints to their marriage documentation in Shenzhen

A couple gets their marriage certificate at the Civil Affairs Bureau in Shenzhen, Guangdong province (VCG)

A growing number of young people in China share the same sentiments as Mei and are signing prenuptial agreements with their partners. Over a decade ago, in 2010, just 10 percent of people polled by China Youth Daily said they could accept a prenuptial agreement. But a survey of 2,396 unmarried people published by NetEase’s Data Blog column in November last year revealed over 50 percent intended to sign one. On social media platforms, thousands of users have shared their experiences with the agreements, along with tips on how to write them, and even template agreements for couples to download.

But despite growing acceptance of prenuptial agreements among young, mainly urban couples, the rate of couples signing them is still far lower than in the US. Many, like Mei’s husband, worry these contracts are unromantic and indicate a lack of trust between what are supposed to be lifelong partners.

Mine, all mine

China’s prenuptial agreements mainly outline property and asset rights to avoid future disputes between spouses in the event of divorce. Typical clauses could indicate what properties remain individually owned after marriage, or how the profits derived from joint assets should be split. Some prenuptial agreements also specify responsibilities, such as whether each partner is responsible for their individual living expenses or has sole responsibility for debts.

Mei’s prenuptial agreement states that a 6 million yuan apartment in Beijing, bought under her husband’s name, comes under shared ownership and will be divided equally if they divorce.

“Typically, prenuptial agreements are more common in marriages with a significant age difference between partners…or in second marriages. They are also prevalent in situations where there’s a disparity in economic status between the two parties,” says Feng Lulu, a lawyer at Beijing Zhong Wen Law Firm. Couples with big age or wealth gaps often seek agreements to safeguard against one party marrying for the other’s wealth, whether through inheritance or otherwise, while divorcees may have been burned in their first marriage and therefore seek greater security when they remarry, Feng explains. “Having a prenuptial agreement makes the division of assets easier in divorce,” Feng says, recounting how divorce cases can drag on for years without them.

In China, most people who sign prenuptial agreements are high earners with good educational backgrounds. They are “a product of modern marriage...reflecting the serious and rational attitude of contemporary young people towards marriage,” Eric Wu, a partner at the Zinger Law Offices in Shanghai, tells TWOC. Wu adds that the increasing financial independence of women and a better awareness of women’s rights in marriage have led more women to seek agreements that protect their assets.

This trend has grown as popular culture and high-profile crimes reveal the potential risks of marriage. In the 2023 movie Lost in the Stars, a man deep in gambling debt schemes to marry a wealthy woman so she can pay off his arrears. When that fails, he plots her murder, hoping to inherit her vast fortune. Netizens claimed the film educated them about “romantic naivety.”

In real life, a 2019 case revealed that a Chinese man, burdened by deep gambling debts, pushed his pregnant wife off a cliff in Thailand in the hope of inheriting her wealth. In Shanghai in 2022, another indebted man who had lost fortunes on the stock market murdered his wife of seven years, claiming they had tried to commit suicide together. In the meantime, he took money out of her online accounts. Though prenuptial agreements can’t protect against domestic abuse and violence, these gruesome cases have raised awareness about the economic and safety risks present in marriage and encouraged more couples to seek protection.

Don’t get burned

“One should not blindly trust his wife or her husband; it’s crucial to sign an agreement to protect oneself,” Hou, a 33-year-old divorcee who only wished to give his surname, tells TWOC. Hou says he entered his previous marriage hastily and only realized the importance of a prenuptial agreement during the divorce.

He met his now ex-wife in 2017. They married in November 2018, partly to circumvent local restrictions on property purchases by singles in Shanghai. “We got our marriage certificate on Friday, and I bought the apartment on Saturday. Then, dramatically, on Sunday, she decided to move to Beijing to run her start-up company, initiating a long-distance marriage between Shanghai and Beijing,” Hou says. His ex-wife did not contribute to the 50 percent down payment on the Shanghai apartment, and the mortgage, in Hou’s name, was entirely his burden.

Chinese couples discussing new properties with salespeople, China's prenuptial agreements

Property ownership is clearly outlined in most prenuptial agreements to prevent future disputes (VCG)

Financial disputes began when he asked her for money to help with the mortgage payments. Betrayal followed, and by August 2020, they had started the process of divorce. Asset distribution was complicated by his ex-wife’s business facing legal actions and asset freezes. After exhaustive negotiations, the divorce finally concluded in February 2022. They sold the house in Shanghai and split the earnings equally. Hou feels the final agreement favors his ex-wife.

“When we were in love, spending money on each other was effortless. But once problems arose, I started wondering why we should compromise our finances. Marriage isn’t just about getting a certificate; it entails sharing each other’s post-marital income and being responsible for each other’s debts. There are so many details to be aware of in advance, and you only realize the full extent of potential pitfalls after going through it once. The cost is heavy and it still hurts,” Hou says. Hou claims he will seek a prenuptial agreement if he remarries.

Mei agrees that prenuptial agreements are about avoiding trouble down the line. “Signing a prenup doesn’t mean I’m having thoughts of divorce or I distrust my husband,” she says. “However, life is filled with uncertainties. It’s not about fearing the probable but preparing for the improbable. If divorce becomes a reality, this agreement is a bulwark for my financial interests.”

Prenups for a new era

While prenuptial agreements traditionally focus on stipulating the nature and ownership of assets post-marriage, young Chinese couples increasingly include lifestyle rules and moral clauses in their documents.

A search for prenuptial agreement templates online reveals that clauses prohibiting infidelity have become standard, while terms for sharing household duties, responsibilities towards parental care, and decisions about having children, child-raising, and domestic violence are also common.

Mei based her prenuptial agreement on a template she found online, tailoring the clauses to her relationship. For instance, it includes punitive measures for infidelity, with Mei forfeiting 30 percent of asset ownership if she is unfaithful, and her husband losing all of his ownership rights for the same reason. (Mei believes that since women sacrifice more in marriage, her punishment for mistakes should be less severe than her husband’s.)

After printing their homemade agreement, the couple ventured to a notary office in Beijing to get the document legally ratified, only to be informed by notary officials that there was no need. They signed the paper and, with the pact in hand, obtained their marriage certificate. Mei was unaware, however, that some clauses in her agreement might not be legally enforceable.

Though non-notarized agreements can be referenced during divorce proceedings, infidelity agreements, for example, pertain to emotional and moral realms, and may therefore not be enforceable under China’s Marriage Law, explains Feng, the lawyer. Meanwhile, defining and proving infidelity or domestic violence, for asset division in divorce, is incredibly complex. “For instance, proving infidelity might lead to attempts to catch a partner in the act, which could involve infringing on privacy through wiretapping or opening mail without permission…Marital disputes over these issues could escalate into criminal cases, with significant negative consequences,” Feng says. “Prenuptial agreements primarily govern the ownership of assets but cannot regulate personal behavior,” she adds.

“Although I completely understood his approach, reading the clauses still caused me considerable pain.”

In a 2020 case from Panzhou, Guizhou province, a court ruled that a prenuptial agreement by the divorcing couple, stating that “if there is a divorce or betrayal, the man will leave with nothing,” was “unsupported by law and thus not upheld.” The ruling states that the couple’s “loyalty agreement” should be fulfilled “voluntarily...and shouldn’t be enforced by law.” The case is available on China Judgements Online, an official database of select cases, and therefore likely representative.

Signing love away

Despite the growing uptake of prenuptial agreements, they remain rare in China. When TWOC inquired about prenuptial agreements among around 30 married couples, most saw them as unnecessary. Some expressed a desire not to overly rationalize their relationships by quantifying every aspect, while others felt that prenuptial agreements are exclusive to the ultra-wealthy. Some suggested signing could show distrust toward one’s partner.

Posts referring to prenuptial agreements on social media platform Xiaohongshu often receive similar sentiments from netizens. In 2023, one user under the handle “Italy Wife” shared her experience signing a prenuptial agreement in China with her Italian husband: “Although I completely understood his approach, reading the clauses still caused me considerable pain…During the signing process, I tried my best to keep smiling and appear relaxed just to prevent him from feeling guilty.”

Most of the 276 comments underneath her post opposed prenuptial agreements. “If there’s no trust, why get married,” read one comment. “Someone who truly loves you wouldn’t have so many conditions. A marriage with conditions can be easily strained by anything!” wrote another user.

Many who sign prenuptial agreements don’t follow them strictly anyway. Of the 56 people who told the NetEase survey last November that they had signed prenuptial agreements, only 12 adhered to the terms and said it influenced their behavior. Mei tells TWOC that she had forgotten the specific details of her agreement before she dug it out for this article. Though Mei’s agreement says she will equally split mortgage payments with her husband, he continues to pay it all.

On reflection, Mei says that signing a prenuptial agreement was less about dividing assets and more about considering the couple’s core values within marriage, how they could meet each other’s needs and support one another—a process that allows for a deeper understanding of one’s partner. “[The prenuptial agreement] wasn’t a matter of personal distrust towards him but a belief in the concrete over the spoken,” she says. “Without this agreement, I would feel insecure.”

In contrast, Eric Wu, the lawyer, didn’t sign a prenuptial agreement with his wife. “Having seen so many divorce cases, I am even more convinced of the importance of not rushing into marriage and the commitment to never divorce,” he says. Besides, Wu believes prenuptial agreements can only address some material issues; they do nothing to guard against the emotional pain of a broken heart. “There is no absolute bulletproof vest [to protect people] in marriage. The only way forward is for a couple to show mutual understanding and sincerity,” he says.

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author Zheng Yiwen (郑怡雯)

Zheng Yiwen is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese. She was a political journalist at The Paper and Phoenix Media, now she writes mainly about society and culture, for sharing fresh voices from China.

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