When starry-eyed lovers romanticize about popping the question, they usually don't expect that question to be: "Will you sign a prenup?"

Nonetheless, the question is being asked much more frequently these days, and not just by movie stars and jet-setters. Prenuptial agreements -- those pre-marriage contracts that spell out who gets what in case you split -- are becoming part of the wedding planning of a growing number of regular John and, especially, Jane Q. Publics.

"They're the engagement ring of the 21st century," said Ed Winer, a family law specialist with the Moss & Barnett firm in Minneapolis. "Many more people are looking at an antenuptial [prenup] agreement 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, a lawyer with Messerli & Kramer in Minneapolis. "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.

The fact that many of these unions are second marriages -- or even beyond -- is a major factor in the prenup boom. Having been through 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, the last thing I always say to them is: 'If you decide to get married again, call me first,' " Lach said.

But prenups are not just for second marriages, said Anoka lawyer Jeff Hicken, the president of the Minnesota chapter of the AAML. With the age climbing at which couples marry for the first time -- 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," he said. "We see a lot of that sort of thing. They're more cautious."

Celebs tainted the image

Prenups have gotten a bad rap because of the 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 are another issue that lead to prenups, Lach said. In these cases, it's often the relatives, rather than the bride or groom, who are pushing 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," she said.

Hicken said he has drawn up agreements for clients earning as little as $40,000 a year. Winer said that shouldn't come as a surprise. He argues 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 been impacted. They've seen their savings and their investments shrink, and now they're determined to protect what's left."

When California instituted laws to keep money-hungry profiteers from marrying movie stars just to cash in on their wealth, it created the impression that prenups aren't fair, Winer said.

"People got the idea that the agreements were designed to hurt the less-advantaged person, which in some cases may have been the case," he said. "But that was in the past. The laws now, especially in Minnesota, are balanced to protect both people. The laws are written to ensure that they deal with legitimate financial issues."

Love is (still) in the air

Prenups are not the most romantic things in the world, Lach admitted. But they're not necessarily anti-romance, either, she said.

"Some people say that it feels like you're planning for a divorce, but you're really not," she said. "It's like estate planning: No one likes to make out a will, either, 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 going through the process of drawing up an agreement actually can strengthen a marriage.

"It's a conversation you should be having anyway," he said. "Before you get married, you should sit down and talk about your finances. You should talk about your financial goals, about your careers. You should take all of these things into account before you get married."

A prenup can cost $1,500 and up, and "up" can get pretty high for people with large estates.

One important thing to remember, Lach said, is that making a nod to the state of the modern-day marriage doesn't mean that you have to give up your dreams of living happily ever after.

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

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392