"They're the engagement ring of the 21st century."

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When starry-eyed lovers romanticize about popping the question, they usually don’t expect that question to be: “Will you sign a prenuptial?”

Nonetheless, the question is being asked much more frequently these days, and not just by movie stars. Prenuptial agreements — pre-marriage contracts that spell out who gets what in case of a split — a re becoming a regular part of wedding planning.

“They’re the engagement ring of the 21st century,” said Ed Winer, a family law specialist in Minneapolis. He said more people are looking at the agreements “as a necessity.”

In a recent survey, 73 percent of attorneys cited an increase in prenuptial agreements during the past five years, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML). In addition, 52 percent of the respondents said more women are requesting the agreements.

“More women are bringing assets into the marriage,”said Sharon Lach, another Minneapolis lawyer. “Plus, I think women are just getting smarter. They’re thinking that 15 or 20 years down the line, they want to be protected” if the marriage falls apart.

Many of these unions are second marriages, a major factor in the prenuptial boom. After the emotional and financial cost of a contested divorce, people want to make sure they don’t have to do it again.

“Whenever I have a client who is going through a messy divorce,” Lach said, “the last thing I always say to them is: ‘If you decide to get married again, call me first.’ “

But prenups are not just for second marriages, said Jeff Hicken, president of the academy’s Minnesota chapter. With the age of first marriage climbing — since 1980, it has gone up two years for men to 26.8 and nearly three years for women to 25.1 — the lovebirds have more time to amass assets than if they were getting married right out of school.

“They’ve accumulated money or investments and they want to protect them,” Hicken said. ” … They’re more cautious.”

Prenups have gotten a bad rap because of splashy Hollywood divorce scandals, the lawyers said. For starters, they’re not just for the rich and famous.

“You don’t have to be wealthy to have things you want to protect,” Winer said. “Consider someone with a family cabin. There’s a divorce, and suddenly the ex-spouse is demanding a share of the cabin.”

Potential inheritances also lead to prenups, Lach said. Often the relatives, rather than the bride or groom, push for the agreement. “Say someone is in line to inherit part of a family business, the other family members want to make sure that they’re covered if there’s a divorce or a death,” Lach said.

Hicken said he has drawn up agreements for clients earning as little as $40,000 a year.

Winer said that in many cases, people of modest means need the protection even more than do the wealthy. “When you’re not wealthy, what you own is more dear to you,”he said. “Especially with the recession, people of all financial levels … [have] seen their savings and their investments shrink, and now they’re determined to protect what’s left.”

When California instituted laws to keep profiteers from marrying movie stars just to cash in on their wealth, it created the impression of unfair prenups, Winer said.

“People got the idea that the agreements were designed to hurt the less-advantaged person,” he said. ” … But that was in the past. The laws now … are balanced to protect both people. The laws are written to ensure that they deal with legitimate financial issues.”

Prenups aren’t exactly romantic, Lach said. “It’s like estate planning: No one likes to make out a will … because it feels like you’re planning for death. But don’t think of it in those terms. Think of it as you don’t have to be nervous about protecting your assets.”

Winer counsels his clients that the process of drawing up an agreement can strengthen a marriage.

“Before you get married, you should sit down and talk about your finances,” he said. “You should talk about your financial goals, about your careers. You should take all of these things into account.”

A prenuptial can cost $1,500 and up.

Lach said making this nod to modern-day marriage doesn’t mean giving up your dreams of living happily ever after.

“The world is changing,” she said. “But love can still be forever.”

E-mail Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Jeff Strickler at jstrickler@startribune.com.