What are the origins of the prenuptial agreement?

How long have prenups been around? Learn the origins of the prenuptial agreement and more in this article.


The history of prenuptial agreements, more commonly known as prenups, can be traced back over 2,000 years to ancient civilizations. In ancient Egypt, written or verbal contracts created by the bride and groom’s parents established the property each spouse would contribute to the marriage, including a dowry and bridewealth (the price a groom would pay to the bride’s family for her hand in marriage). The ancient Hebrew marriage contract, known as a ketubah, detailed the division of property and assets in the case of divorce or death; most importantly, the ketubah ensured the bride’s right to her spouse’s property under such circumstances.

In the Roman Empire, matrimonial agreements known as “dos”, or “donatio propter nuptias”, specified the financial obligations and property rights of spouses. Similar to the ketubah, these agreements often involved the protection of a bride’s dowry or assets in the event of divorce or widowhood. Such agreements continued to be used by wealthy and nobility classes throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period.

Prenuptial agreements did not become more commonplace across the Western world, and particularly in the United States, until the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1848, New York State passed the Married Women’s Property Act, ensuring a married woman would inherit her husband’s estate in the event of his death. In the 1970s and 80s, more and more couples began to consider financial planning and asset protection as divorce rates rose and social attitudes regarding marriage, financial responsibility, and women’s rights continued to evolve. The Uniform Premarital Agreement Act (UPAA), a multi-state law regarding when and how prenuptial agreements should be enforced, was drafted in 1983 in response to these cultural shifts as well as the increase in the number of women choosing to continue working outside the home after marriage. In 1986, the UPAA became law in California, allowing partners to make their own choices about their marital finances in divorce. 

Today, prenuptial agreements are widely used by couples of various socioeconomic backgrounds. They can cover a vast array of financial matters, including property division, spousal support, and inheritance rights. Prenups are often seen as a practical way to clarify financial expectations and protect individual assets in the event of divorce or death.

Overall, while the specific legal frameworks and social attitudes toward prenuptial agreements have evolved over time, the underlying purpose of these contracts—to outline financial arrangements and protect individual interests—remains consistent across history.