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April 1st, 2017 by Marta J. Papa

As I stated in the last blog, the law now regards all property and income acquired after the marriage by same-sex spouses as jointly and equally owned.   And just as with heterosexual couples, should one same-sex spouse enter the marital relationship with substantially more assets, a meeting with a knowledgeable attorney in advance of the legal ceremony can safeguard and protect that individual’s property in case of a divorce.

I had a client who wisely took this advice, Mary T. Mary had inherited a lovely, beachfront Florida house from her grandfather, as well as a tidy sum to maintain and improve the property through the years. She and Pamela, her partner, enjoyed spending their winters out of St. Louis and at the beach. After being a couple for a few years, Mary and Pamela decided to marry and chose the beach house as the site of their ceremony.

Mary, however, wisely came to see me before the wedding because she wanted to safeguard her inheritance. Though she was ready to commit to a marriage with Pamela, Mary also fully recognized that the potential for divorce was as likely for a same-sex couple as for a heterosexual one. She did not want a romantic ideal to overshadow real-world finances. Thus, Mary wisely chose to protect her inherited beachfront property and the inherited money to maintain it.

So upon receiving her inherited money, Mary put it in a separate bank account and certificates of deposit. She used this money to take care of the beachfront house: paying all utility bills, taxes, furnishings, paint/repairs, and general improvements out of this account. Any interest earned on the account and CD’s were transferred to a joint account owned by both Mary and Pamela. This kept the inheritance account separate and prevented it from becoming co-mingled.

Sadly, as with the case between many couples, Mary and Pam’s marital relationship became irreparably strained, and a divorce was the unfortunate outcome. Yet, because Mary had been proactive prior to the marriage, her beachfront property and its operating funds were never in danger of being divided equally with Pam. Indeed, Mary was fortunate to live in Missouri, which is not a community property state (for further information see Marriage & Property Ownership: Who Owns What?

Mary was relieved to have her inheritance intact, but she was burdened by taking on half of the credit card debt Pam had accrued without her knowledge during the marriage. It was a challenging situation to confront. For just as all money earned during the marriage was considered marital money, so too all the debts incurred during the marriage were considered marital debt. In addition, all purchases—big or small—made during the marriage belonged 50% to both women.

This anecdote simply emphasizes the essential fact that entering into a binding legal relationship with another person requires both knowledge and self-protection for one’s ultimate well-being. If Mary and Pam had remained together happily into their retirement years, continued use of the beachfront house would have brought more happy memories and an anticipated annual respite from St. Louis’ tricky winters. Furthermore, Mary could have arranged for Pam to inherit the property upon her death.

Yet, as their chapter as a couple unfortunately closed, Mary was able to reclaim her financial footing and find solace in Florida’s healing sand and sunsets…because she had protected her beachfront sanctuary and herself.