Transmutation of Separate Property into Marital Property

One of the basic theories in equitable distribution and divorce litigation is that of transmutation. Transmutation theory holds that by their actions, the parties are able to modify the status of the property they own from separate property to marital property. Most of the time transmutation occurs when the parties commingle separate property with marital property or place what otherwise be separate property into both parties’ names.  This was demonstrated in Fehring v. Fehring, 58 A.D.3d 1061 (3rd Dept. 2009), where the money received on account of personal injuries by the husband, would be initially classified as his separate property. However, the husband deposited check in brokerage account held and used jointly by the parties. In January 2006, husband used $50,000 from account to purchase real property. The court held that transferring separate property assets into a joint account raises rebutable presumption that funds are marital property subject to equitable distribution and that the husband failed to rebut presumption of marital property given commingling of funds. It held that the lower court providently exercised discretion in distributing equally the value of interest in real property purchased with funds held in joint account.

Another example of how separate property may become a marital asset was addressed in a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. In Foti v. Foti, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op 00835 (4th Dept. 2014), defendant received several pieces of real property as gift from her father. Subsequently, tax losses associated with those properties were taken on the parties’ joint income tax returns. The court held that there was a question of fact whether defendant commingled her interests in the entities with marital property and whether a joint federal tax return in which defendant reported her interest in the entities as tax losses, precluded her from taking “a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return”.

Unfortunately, the Foti decision does not give us enough facts to find out exactly what the tax returns stated. Nonetheless, this shows that even a seemingly innocuous act of filing a tax return may change the status of the property. In my view, decisions like this one, could have been prevented if the parties had signed either a prenuptial or a postnuptial agreement. If you are contemplating divorce, be careful to avoid taking any action that converts your separate property to marital property. Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.

Joint Bank Accounts and Creation of Marital Property

One issue that often comes up in divorce cases has to do with transformation of separate property into marital property.  This situation was dealt with by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Bailey v. Bailey, 48 AD3d 1123 (4th Dept. 2008).  In Bailey, the Appellate Division held that although the court properly determined that plaintiff was entitled to retain the amount of $43,000 she had removed from the parties’ joint HSBC checking accounts containing $66,000, the court erred in allocating the entire amount as separate property.  “The creation of a joint account vests in each tenant a present unconditional property interest in an undivided one half of the money deposited, regardless of who puts the funds on deposit.  The creation of a joint account vests in each tenant a present unconditional property interest in an undivided one half of the money deposited, regardless of who puts the funds on deposit” (Parry v. Parry, 93 A.D.2d 989, 990; see Nasca v. Nasca, 302 A.D.2d 906).  Therefore, each party was entitled to a distributive award of $33,000 from that account.

The issue of transmutation, as the process of changing the status of property from separate to marital is commonly referred to, may appear in many cases and under many different circumstances.  It is not uncommon for such separate property as gifts, inheritances, and personal injury award to lose their status as separate property.  Therefore, if a party has even a suspicion that there may be a divorce in foreseeable future, that party would do well to discuss these issues with a divorce lawyer and to keep that property in an account titled solely in that party’s name.  The alternative is if that property is placed in a joint account for reasons other that convenience, as defined by the courts, that party will likely be making a gift of one half of the property if divorce is commenced.  Any such issues should be discussed with an experienced family law lawyer.  Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.

Transmutation and Converting Separate Property to Marital Property

One of the basic theories in equitable distribution and divorce litigation is that of transmutation. Transmutation theory holds that by their actions, the parties are able to modify the status of the property they own from separate property to marital property. In a recent decision, Fehring v. Fehring, 58 A.D.3d 1061 (3rd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Third Department, has provided a perfect illustration of how transmutation may occur.

Parties were married in 1990. In August of 2005, the husband received $50,000 insurance payment. The money was related to his personal injuries and, therefore, would be initially classified as his separate property. Plaintiff deposited check in brokerage account held and used jointly by the parties. In January 2006, husband used $50,000 from account to purchase real property. The court held that transferring separate property assets into a joint account raises rebutable presumption that funds are marital property subject to equitable distribution. Rosenkranse v. Rosenkranse, 290 A.D.2d 685, 686 (3rd Dept. 2002). Presumption may be rebutted by evidence that such deposits were made as matter of convenience with no intention of creating beneficial interest. See, Chamberlain v. Chamberlain, 24 AD3d 589, 593 (2nd Dept. 2005). In Fehring, account was used by both parties for items such as credit card bills. The Appellate Division held that the husband failed to rebut presumption of marital property given commingling of funds. It held that the lower court providently exercised discretion in distributing equally the value of interest in real property purchased with funds held in joint account.

If you are contemplating divorce, be careful to avoid taking any action that converts your separate property to marital property. Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.