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In this episode, I want to discuss an important term called co-mingling. That is the process in which you can inadvertently make separate property, marital property. Co-mingling is a very important term when it comes to divorce, and I'm going to use an example of an inheritance because it's a very common example.
Let's just say you receive an inheritance from your mom, I'm just going to make it up, and let's just say you received $100,000 from your mom because unfortunately, she passed away. Well, if you receive that money, the perfect circumstance or the ideal circumstance is you deposit that money into a separate bank account and you never move it to your joint bank account and you only track and... In a perfect world, you don't even spend that money. You save it for a rainy day. But let's just say you have to use some of it for a down payment on a house, and so you use that money for a down payment on a house. You and your spouse now have both of your names on the house, but that down payment came from that inheritance. That's a common example that I hear almost every week. Or even you needed the funds for daily living expenses and you started mixing those funds in and you move that money to a joint account. Well, when it comes to the time of divorce, you have to say, "Well, hey, is that money, is it separate property or is it marital property?" And it starts to get really complicated because it depends.
Now, if you got that money first, and let's just say you used it for life expenses, and you used that money and you put it in a joint account from that inheritance money into a joint account. Well, those funds may have become marital assets, inadvertently, because of that. Or if you used those funds for a down payment on a jointly owned house, does it immediately become marital property? Now it gets a little bit more complicated. This subject is very complicated and it depends on your individual circumstances, but I want to give you the highlights as to what you're going to be thinking about if this is an issue in your divorce.
Conversely, you could be on the other side of this situation too, where your spouse got an inheritance, and sometimes it's a pretty substantial amount, and you're trying to figure out, "Well, hey, we used some of that inheritance for these one, two and three things. Does he or she get credit for that money? Does that money come back? Is that joint property? What's the deal? What do we get to do with that?" So that is where this process becomes very important to understand from both sides of the spectrum.
So the first part, and the term that I'm going to introduce to start, is called tracing. So the first word is co-mingling, and that's the process of making a separate property, marital, broadly speaking. Now, tracing is a very important term, and that is figuring out where the money came from. Simple as that. So if you had, let's just say, a gift from a parent, and let's just say that gift came or that inheritance came eight years ago, and then five years ago you used that money to buy a house. And then now fast forward five years, you're facing a divorce situation. Well, you want to keep that inheritance separate, is my guess, and you don't want to split the funds that your parent gave you. So how do you figure out and prove, basically, that that inheritance is separate property? And conversely, if you're the one who's contesting this situation, you're going to have to make your spouse illustrate where all of that money came from and have the records for it.
So that's where tracing comes into play. Very simply, it's just figuring out where the money came from and going through that process of, "Hey, eight years ago, those funds were deposited into this account. And then five years ago, it was wired to this company for the down payment on the house." And you need to go through that process and have all the steps involved, and it's not an easy one oftentimes. So here's where one of the most important things you'll hear me always talk about is having good documentation. That's the problem and that's really the biggest challenge with co-mingling is having the documentation.
If you've been married for a long time, and I speak to people who've been married 20, 30, 40 years oftentimes, and you may not have clean records for where every dollar went. It's something that's very important to think about because state rules can vary on the subject in terms of what you should do in those situations. And one of the things you're going to really need to focus on is gathering documentation. Because sometimes in a state, the burden is, and really you need to talk to your attorney about this point because there are a lot of nuances on the burden, but some states will say, "Hey, unless it can be proved it's separate property, it's automatically marital property." Other states have a little less restrictive or a little bit more flexible burden on that very point.
So you really need to understand what's happening, but the clean way to figure things out is to have records. So to get records, you can... The first thing is that even if an account is old, you might not be able to log into your Bank of America account or Chase account and see records more than two or three years old. But if you walk into your local Chase branch, or you set up an appointment, you may be able to get records from the time you've had the account. I've been in banks with clients before where you go and you figure out, "All right, well, here's the time that we had the account" and they'll go back and they can go to the bank and get 10 years of records. It might take a couple of hours, but it is a very doable thing to do when you go into the bank.
Now, it can be tough and you still may not have all of the records, but also look for old correspondence. If you've had the same email account, or if you have any mail, or if you keep a safe or a file cabinet with important documentation. Or sometimes if it's related to an inheritance, you may have or you may need to contact the old attorney who handled the paperwork if an attorney handled it. Or your sibling, sometimes maybe you don't have it, but if you have a brother or sister or something, you might be able to contact them and figure out what kind of shreds of evidence sometimes it is, particularly, we're talking about something 10 years or eight years in the past, you may have to keep things clean. Now, sometimes it's not a big issue when it comes to documentation and you have everything there. But if you don't, those are some tips I would suggest for you.
Now, let's just say not all things are clean and smooth, and let's just say this is going to become a big issue between you and your spouse as part of the divorce process. What do you do? That is you're going to have to bring in some experts. There are forensic accountants and CPAs who do this work and can help figure out, "All right, what part is separate? What part is marital?" And sometimes they may even come up with estimates. But if you get a good accountant, they will look at what of information that you have or that your spouse has, and they will say, "Okay, well, I can see 70% of the picture" and they'll say, "Okay, well, from my best judgment, I think this amount of money is separate property and this amount of money is marital property." They can sometimes estimate or even trace with imperfect information where funds came and went.
So if you have a lot of money at stake, and sometimes it is, if you're dealing with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars that you're trying to figure out, "Hey, what is separate property? Hey, what is marital property?" Then you should strongly consider getting an accountant or a forensic accountant to help you.
Now in a perfect world, and I always say this about hiring experts who do valuation or forensic accounting, et cetera, is in a perfect world, and we're talking about divorce so almost nothing is perfect, you would get a neutral person to look at all of the available documentation that you and your spouse agree upon. And will have that person analyze everything, prepare a report, and those are the numbers that you use to determine separate or marital property. Now, that's not always the case. Certainly, I see all the time where one person is hired by you, one person is hired by your spouse, and they come up with very different valuations of what is separate property and what is marital property from the co-mingling and the tracing that they do. And you have to basically fight it out, unfortunately, or come up with a middle ground.
So something to think about, but as I said in the previous episode is really to the extent that you can keep things separate and avoid making things separate, or making separate property marital, you should. Now, not all the time are you walking around your life and thinking that I'm going to get divorced tomorrow and therefore I need to have done these things eight years in advance. I understand that life doesn't work that way and so you shouldn't necessarily feel bad because you've made the wrong decision, but you do need to... Or you didn't have the records, or you didn't keep things as cleanly as you would like. But even despite that is you need to get on top of and start collecting and getting the information on all the records that you don't have and start planning for the future and putting yourself... I always say this is even in an imperfect situation and imperfect world, you need to start putting yourself in a very good or the best situation you can for the future to ensure, or at least to help ensure, that things are going the way that they should through the divorce process.
And if you gather up as much documentation as you can, you gather up some of the records, you might not be able to get 100% of the money back or prove 100% is one way or the other, but hey, if you get 80% of the way there or 70% of the way there, you are still in a much better position than before.
So the important term for this episode is co-mingling. And if you are thinking about your individual circumstance, this is a really complicated term, both legally and involving individual circumstances, and involving your state's laws, but I would type in co-mingling in your state and I would look at some attorney websites. I would contact your attorney and figure out, "Hey, what do I need to be thinking about both good or bad when it comes to co-mingling in my situation?" Because it can mean the difference in many thousands, hundreds of thousands, or in some cases, millions of dollars that go from one person to another.
Visit us at divorceandyourmoney.com for the #1 divorce resources in the USA and get personalized help.
It's been a little while since I have done an episode and it's been a very busy couple of months, so apologies about that. But I want to discuss a topic that's been coming up quite a bit in the coaching calls.
And that is how you handle inheritances and gifts during a divorce. It's a tricky question. And it's an important question because oftentimes your parents, or someone, will leave you a substantial sum and you want to protect that during the divorce process. Sometimes that inheritance money comes at a poorly time to time where you can't control it. Someone passes away, unfortunately, and you receive some money maybe right before a divorce or during the divorce process. And you're trying to figure out, well, what should you do?
I just spoke with someone the other day who had filed for divorce and then, unfortunately, a parent passed away, eight months into the divorce process And they were wondering, "Well, how do we handle this new inheritance that arose, and what to do about that?" And so in this episode, I want to give you some tips when it comes to handling gifts or inheritances and how to protect that property. And really, the main thing is how do you prevent it from becoming a community property, which is the property that is subject to, or that you're going to end up having to split as part of the divorce process.
So let's go through a few quick tips.
The first thing is if you receive an inheritance, or you receive a gift from someone, keep that stuff in your name only. Meaning, if you get some money, let's just say a hundred thousand dollars, because I'm going to use that as an easy example. If the parent passes away and gives you a hundred thousand dollars, don't deposit that into a joint bank account. Set up a separate bank account that's in your name only. And we're going to call it your inherited funds account. And so put the money in that bank account separately so that it doesn't get commingled with the other assets. And that could get complicated because not always is an inheritance a gift. Sometimes it may be a home or a car or any other type of property. Whatever it is, make sure to title it in your name only.
The second thing is don't let your spouse make any contributions to that gift or that inheritance. And the house is the easiest way to illustrate that. If you inherit a house and let's just say it's been run down for a little and it needs some repairs to get it up to speed. Well, one of the things that you should do is don't let your spouse contribute financially to those repairs because the value increase of that house, or even the whole house itself, depending upon where you are, could now come into question as part of the divorce process. And sometimes this may be a house that you maybe just made renovations or adjustments on a few years ago, and now the divorce process is happening. And now you're wondering, "Well, is any part of that house marital property, because my spouse helped renovate the master bathroom and bedroom in there?" And so if that's your situation, be very careful and think through what you're going to do with that inherited property. And if you can keep your spouse from making contributions to it, financial or labor even, then you should do so.
The third thing is to consider transferring that inheritance or gift to a trust. Now, oftentimes a parent who was savvy in estate planning, or at least inheritance is most commonly from parents, which is why I use that example, are very savvy in their estate planning. And so oftentimes as part of their estate is they will give you that property, be it cash or the home or whatever, jewelry or whatever it may be, and they might require it to be put in a trust as part of the process. But if that wasn't the case for you, I would consider setting up a trust.
Now there are lots of complications and nuances to having a trust set up for you. But what I would do is if you have an inheritance coming, or you recently got one, or you're thinking about it, I would go and look for an attorney called an estate planning attorney or a trust attorney. And they're kind of one and the same and they can illustrate options for you to set up a trust. Now, usually, there are some fees involved, of course, we're talking about legal work, but it can be worth a little bit of trust set up in the short term to protect you in the long-term.
And then the last thing I would strongly suggest is to keep really good records about where the inheritance came from, how much money was in there, where the funds went, et cetera, et cetera. One of the most common things that I deal with and see people make a mistake with is not keeping track of the money and keeping track of the details of an inheritance. And so what can happen is, let's just say you got an inheritance seven years ago and you knew it was approximately $123,000 but you don't remember the exact math that was there. Well, one of the things that you can do, error the exact amount that was in there because seven years have passed and you want to know. Well, if you don't know what that amount was and your spouse is going to contest it in terms of how much was actually in that inheritance, you could be setting yourself up for a world of potential hurt in that you may end up losing part of your inheritance in the divorce process since you didn't keep accurate records.
And so, one of the things that is most important to do is make sure that you keep track of the paperwork. Keep track of any emails. Keep track of any bank statements. Keep track of any lawyer's correspondence or documentation to ensure that the information that you have from the inheritance is kept and kept track of over time and kept cleanly. Because one of the things that can happen is, let's just say, hypothetically, you've received an inheritance of that $123,000, and the next year you purchased the house with your spouse and use those funds as a down payment. That's something that's very common. And then three or four or five years or 10 years, whatever the amount is, goes by and now you're facing divorce. And you're like, "Well, I contributed $123,000 to that down payment of the house from this inherited gift."
Well, the good news is that even though you may not have followed my initial steps or initial tips, my tips one, two, and three, that you still may be able to get credit for that money as part of the divorce process and consider it still separate property if you have accurate records. But you need to make sure that you have very accurate records of where every dollar came from and where that inheritance money went. On the other hand, if you didn't keep accurate records, you may lose those funds and it may become a costly issue. And it's something that you want to be very careful about. So it's one of those things where you need to make sure that you find every piece of documentation that you have related to that.
Now I've been talking mostly in the context of inheritances because that's the most common, but oftentimes I also see a parent give a gift to you and or your spouse. And what can happen is some money flows in, it's usually pretty informal, gifts around $14,000 or so are not taxed. But sometimes they're bigger gifts. And you forget, because of the size of the gift, to go through all of the steps and document everything. You may have just had a phone call with your mom or dad and your mom or dad just said, "Oh, I'm writing you a check for, here's a $10,000 check for some spending money." And if you're fortunate enough to have parents who are in that position and then you're like, "Oh great. This is a good check." And you use it for something important, but you want those funds back as part of the divorce process because you feel it's appropriate given the situation.
Well, one of the things you should make sure that you do is you need to have a list of documentation from your parents. Your parents, your mom or dad should say, "Hey, I wrote you this check for $10,000." You should have some emails from the time of the check. You should have other correspondence from that time. And you should indicate that all of that stuff happened and happened smoothly because that way you can prove where those funds came from. But just because it's casual or just because you may not be thinking about it at the time and divorce may not have even been on your radar at the time of the gift, which is okay, but you need to make sure that whenever money is coming in from a source, particularly a family member, that those transactions are documented and you gather that documentation.
So the four most important tips for protecting your inheritance or gifts in divorce. And I'll just go through them quickly. One is to keep inheritances or gifts in your name only. The second is don't let your spouse make any contributions to that account or that property to ensure that it stays separate. The third is to consider contacting an estate planner and transferring that inheritance or that gift to a trust. And fourth is to keep really good records as to where that inheritance or gift came from.