Basics of Identifying Separate Property in Divorce

New York State Domestic Relations Law 236(B)(1)(d)(1) provides a list of specific types of property that may not be considered marital property and must be considered the separate property of the title-holding spouse. This property is exempt from equitable distribution. The statute addresses the following categories of property:

(1) Pre-marriage property;
(2) Gifted or inherited property;
(3) Compensation for personal injuries;
(4) Property acquired with separate property;
(5) Property identified as separate property by written agreement.

The property falling within the categories above is considered “separate property” under the Equitable Distribution Law. There may also be other types of property, in addition to the statutory list, which may not be considered “marital property”, such as property acquired after commencement of the marital action.

There is a presumption that property acquired during the marriage and prior to execution of a separation agreement or commencement of a matrimonial action is marital property. Therefore, the party who claims that the property acquired within those time frames is separate property has the burden of proof. Even though separate property is not subject to equitable distribution, it may be considered in making such distribution.

PREMARITAL PROPERTY

Property acquired before the marriage is separate property because the economic partnership created by marriage is not established until the marriage has taken place. This means that even if the parties cohabitated before marriage, the property acquired before marriage and the appreciation to that property to date of marriage, is not marital property.

Wedding gifts are considered to be marital property, unless the gift was something that could be used only by one spouse, or was specifically earmarked as exclusively intended for one spouse. Gifts given by one prospective spouse to the other prior to marriage are the separate property of the recipient spouse. As discussed in a previous post, engagement rings are the separate property of the recipient spouse.

GIFTED OR INHERITED PROPERTY

Property acquired by gift or inheritance by a party from an inheritance, is separate property. Where the gift or inheritance, however, is to both spouses jointly, the property should be viewed as marital. However, interspousal gifts are marital property. With respect to any gift claimed as separate property, the party making such claim will have to show that the property was intended for that spouse alone. Income from separate property is considered to be separate property.

PERSONAL INJURY COMPENSATION

Personal injury includes compensation for personal injury, libel, slander, and malicious prosecution; also assault, battery, false imprisonment or other actionable injury to the person.

PROPERTY ACQUIRED WITH SEPARATE PROPERTY

Property acquired in exchange for separate property is separate property, so long as it has not been commingled with marital property or an interest gifted to the other spouse.

PROPERTY BY AGREEMENT

The parties’ may by a written and acknowledged agreement define property to be separate, no matter what a court might determine.

COMMINGLED PROPERTY

Separate property co-mingled with marital property remains separate if it can be traced to its source and there has been no valid gift or agreement to the contrary. However, separate property that is commingled with marital assets, or placed in the spouses’ joint names, can become marital property. For example, if a spouse places his or her separate property into joint names, such as a house or a bank account, a presumption of a gift arises which, unless rebutted, results in the conclusion that the property is to be treated as marital property. This presumption, if not rebutted, is that the entire amount of the asset will be treated as separate property.

It should be noted that the spouse who contributed separate property may receive a credit for the amount of property contributed to the creation of the marital asset. Recent decisions have extended this concept to include the appreciation of the separate property as a credit to the spouse who contributed it. Similarly to a situation where marital property is used to pay a separate debt, where a spouse uses separate property to pay a loan on marital property, that spouse is entitled to a credit for such payment when the marital property is distributed.

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