On Monday, you inherit a million dollars. On Tuesday, your spouse files and serves a Complaint for Divorce. Do you get to keep the million dollars?
In Massachusetts, the court has broad discretion in determining which assets belong to the marital estate and how they should be divided. Neither the date of acquisition nor the manner in which title is held necessarily determines whether an asset is to be included in the estate. Rather, the concept of marital property in Massachusetts, as defined by statute as well as applicable case law, is expansive. “Upon divorce … the court may assign to either husband or wife all or any part of the estate of the other …” Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 208, Section 34.
In dividing the marital estate, the court is required to consider various factors: “… the length of the marriage, the conduct of the parties during the marriage, the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties, the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income, and the amount and duration of alimony, if any. …” Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 208, Section 34. While a mere expectancy under a will may be considered by the court as an opportunity for future acquisition of capital assets and income, a vested inheritance may be assigned upon divorce.
So, would the million dollars be included in the marital estate? Most likely, yes. Would you be allowed to keep it? Arguments could be made for both sides depending on the facts: For example, did you receive the inheritance after six months of marriage or after 20 years? Does your spouse expect to receive a substantial inheritance? Did you or your spouse incur debt in reliance on the anticipated inheritance? Did you participate in any activities for which you were not adequately compensated or due to which you lost opportunities (to the detriment of the marital estate) and, as a result, received the lump sum inheritance? Is your spouse financially self-sufficient? When did you separate – five years prior to your receipt of the inheritance or on the day you were served? Did you and your spouse rely on an income stream generated by the million dollars or access the principal? Presumably not since the inheritance was received twenty-four hours prior to the filing.
The answers to these questions do not necessarily resolve the issue in dispute, nor is any one determinative, but they may form the building blocks of an argument. An equitable division of the marital estate is the objective of the Probate and Family Court and, taking into account the parties’ facts and circumstances, the court will endeavor to do just that.