On a recent episode of "Dirty Sexy Money," ABC's soapy drama about the filthy rich, heiress Karen Darling gets married for the fourth time, to a golf pro. Minutes after the ceremony, she decides she wants a divorce, leaving the golfer to wonder about his $3 million guarantee in the pre-nuptial agreement.
"I still get the check, right?" he asks.
"Of course," Ms. Darling sneers. "I made a vow."
Marrying for money isn't just grist for television plot lines. With the wealth boom creating unprecedented riches -- and greater opportunities for gold-digging by both genders -- price-tag partnerships and checkbook breakups are increasingly making headlines. Even more surprising, according to a new survey, are the going rates for today's mercenary unions.
Celebrities get the most attention, of course, whether it's Kevin Federline, the backup dancer-turned-millionaire ex of Britney Spears, or Heather Mills, Paul McCartney's estranged second wife, who is set to receive tens of millions of dollars when her divorce is final, according to the British press.
Yet even among the workaday (or wannabe) wealthy, marrying for money has become a popular pursuit. In an infamous personal ad posted on Craigslist this summer, a twentysomething New Yorker who described herself as "spectacularly beautiful" wrote that she was looking for a man who made at least $500,000 a year. She'd tried dating men earning $250,000, but that wasn't "getting me to Central Park West," she said. The ad inspired all manner of parodies and follow-ups, including one by an investment banker, who replied that since his money would grow over time but her beauty would fade, the offer didn't make good business sense. She was, he said, a "depreciating asset."
To many New Yorkers, jaded by multimillion-dollar condos and wall-to-wall wealth, the salary request probably seems reasonable, maybe even low. Yet nationally, the going rate is much lower.
According to a survey by Prince & Associates, a Connecticut-based wealth-research firm, the average "price" that men and women demand to marry for money these days is $1.5 million.
The survey polled 1,134 people nationwide with incomes ranging between $30,000 to $60,000 (squarely in the median range for nationwide incomes). The survey asked: "How willing are you to marry an average-looking person that you liked, if they had money?"
Fully two-thirds of women and half of the men said they were "very" or "extremely" willing to marry for money. The answers varied by age: Women in their 30s were the most likely to say they would marry for money (74 percent) while men in their 20s were the least likely (41 percent).
"I'm a little shocked at the numbers," says Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who has studied marriage and money. "It's kind of against the notion of love and soul mates and the main motivations to marry in our culture."
Still, Smock has found in her own research that having money does encourage people to tie the knot. "It's more likely that a couple will marry if they have money, and if the man is economically stable," she says.
Women aren't the only ones with the gold-digging impulse. In the Prince & Associates study, 61 percent of men in their 40s said they would marry for money. Smock says that as men get older, they become more comfortable with women being the breadwinners.
The matrimonial price tag varies by gender and age. Asked how much a potential spouse would need to have to be money-marriage material, women in their 20s said $2.5 million. The going rate fell to $1.1 million for women in their 30s and rose again to $2.2 million for women in their 40s.
Smock and Russ Alan Prince, Prince & Associate's founder, both attribute the fluctuation to the assumption that thirty-something women feel more pressure to get married than women in their 20s, so they are willing to lower the price. By their 40s, women are more comfortable being independent, so they're willing to hold out for more cash.
Men have cheaper requirements. In the Prince survey, their asking price overall was $1.2 million, with men in their 20s asking $1 million and men in their 40s asking $1.4 million.
Douglas Freeman, a tax and estates attorney in California who works with wealthy families, says the men's numbers are lower because they would feel threatened by women worth several million dollars. "The men aren't going to say they want $10 million, because they wouldn't be comfortable with a woman who's worth so much more than they are," he says.
Whatever the case, the prices for both men and women seem low, given the new landscape of wealth. While $1 million or $2 million may sound like a lot to people making $30,000, it's hardly enough to make them "rich" by contemporary standards. No one in the survey quoted a price of more than $3 million.
Of course, when the mercenary marriage proves disappointing, there's always divorce. Among the women in their 20s who said they would marry for money, 71 percent said they expected to get divorced -- the highest of any demographic. Only 27 percent of men in their 40s expected to divorce.
Says Prince: "For these women, it's just another step on their journey to the good life. They want to be paid what they think they're worth and then move on."