Disagreements over marriage contracts can end relationships. But for NHL players and their partners, such documents are must-haves.

Athletes are usually separated from their families during the season, which causes emotional stress. What’s more, NHL players and their spouses often find themselves in the limelight. This is especially the case if an athlete marries a well-known business owner or actress. Both would have high incomes and significant assets, so a marriage contract would help protect each spouse if they were to separate.

We spoke to experts who offered tips to married professional athletes.

The experts

Susan CarsonSusan Carson

Investment advisor at CIBC Wood Gundy, Toronto

Shelly KalraShelly Kalra

Lawyer at Stanchieri Family Law, Toronto

Cindy CameronCindy Cameron

Family law associate at Cox & Palmer, Summerside, P.E.I.

What issues do wealthy spouses struggle with, and how can they protect their assets before marrying?

SC: One area we would caution wealthy couples about is the potential for a lack of liquidity. Either due to their lifestyles or for investment purposes, some can tie up a great percentage of their assets in non-liquid investments, such as real estate and private equity. So if emergencies come up or if people separate, they could end up having to liquidate assets for well under what they paid. Any issues can be magnified by the amount of money involved.

Read: Divorce delays retirement plans

If a player becomes permanently disabled, his wife may end up as the sole earner. How could that scenario affect their marriage and potential divorce settlement?

SC: Even if spouses have very high incomes, they need to be careful if either has a potentially short-term career. If your income level won’t grow over time and you’re going to make the most money you’ll ever make before age 50, you need to protect your wealth and lifestyle. Couples can monitor their spending and have a team of advisors, including a bookkeeper who can track and report on monthly expenses.

They can plan to live a lifestyle that allows them to have a much higher rate of savings than the usual 10% rule of thumb. Typically, many couples buy joint insurance since it’s less expensive and both spouses are covered. But couples can also have individual insurance policies, and those are simpler to separate if people divorce.

SK: Let’s say a marriage breaks down and one spouse is disabled. To determine spousal support terms, a judge will look at the marriage contract and the fact that one partner potentially can’t work. The disabled spouse is going to get some sort of disability benefit, so they’ll also take that into account.

The other factor is going to be whether the husband was financially dependent during the marriage. If so, the judge would look at whether the wife can actually meet the husband’s financial needs, and for how long she needs to do so. The judge will look at her income and the husband’s, the duration of their marriage, whether the couple has kids, and the husband’s age and needs upon separation. Spousal support guidelines in Ontario suggest payments be capped at $350,000, even if people earn millions. But there’s no set standard, so some judges agree and others don’t. However, marriage contracts are rarely set aside and couples can reference the support guidelines in those.

Read: One way to protect the matrimonial home

If a couple has kids and if the player becomes disabled, how would custody planning work in the event of a divorce?

SK: You can’t put child support provisions in marriage contracts, but you can include custody and access provisions. However, a judge may overrule those custody and access provisions if they don’t serve the best interests of the children. So, during marriage, you have to think about who’s acting as the primary caregiver for the kids, since that’s generally going to determine access in the event of divorce.

If one party takes maternity or paternity leave, and also helps with extracurriculars and housework, he or she will likely be the primary caregiver. If both parents were hands-on, care will likely be shared.

CC: Child support payments are calculated based on parents’ annual incomes, as well as on the conditions, means and needs of each spouse and the children. For example, let’s say a judge determines that child support is $3,000 for the wife, but is only $1,000 for the husband because he’s disabled and not working.

If the husband has primary custody (he has the kids more than 60% of the time), the wife would pay the full $3,000 per month to her ex-husband. But if the wife has primary custody, the husband would have to pay $1,000 per month to his ex-wife.

Read: Get couples to sign a prenup

If those parents share custody, support would normally be calculated on a set-off basis. That means the wife would only be responsible for paying $2,000 to her husband per month, which is the difference between the two figures. By accepting a shared-custody arrangement, the higher-earning spouse is able to send less money to her husband. However, she’d also be responsible for raising the kids at least 40% of the time.

When determining custody arrangements, courts focus on what’s best for children. Even if people are disabled, they can be perfectly capable of taking care of children, especially if they have support from a nanny, for example, or if a child is older and more independent.

SK: Also, if one parent travels a lot or lives far away, we generally don’t see typical shared custody schedules. Instead, parent A will have primary care of the kids, and parent B can request access by giving 24 or 48 hours’ notice.

If a famous, wealthy couple goes to divorce court, how can they maintain privacy?

SK: Wealthy families try to avoid court since the records can become public. If mediation doesn’t work, they’ll try arbitration. But hockey players who go to court could request that documents only contain their initials. They can also get an order sealing their files: that means no other party can have access, besides the judge and court clerk. To get the order, they’d need to demonstrate financial harm is a possibility if their information was leaked.