Ask a Divorce Lawyer: Is my ex legally part-owner of our house even though I bought it before we got married?

Question: My wife and I are recently separated. She moved home with her parents, and I still live in my house. The house is in my name, and I bought it before we got married. 

Since our separation, she has come in and started taking things out of the house that either was hers before the marriage or we both bought or received as a gift during the marriage. Recently without my knowledge she took out a large sum of money from our joint checking account. Because of this, I changed the locks on the house so that she could not get anything else or do anything to the house. 

She is saying that it is her house legally as well, and she can come and go as she pleases, and if the locks are changed, she will have a sheriff break down the door. Can she do that? Is she legally part owner of this house now?

Answer:

Because I am licensed to practice law in Michigan, I can only give you general information, and I strongly encourage you to consult with an attorney in your state. You should not rely upon this information as creating an attorney-client relationship, and you should seek counsel in your area for further instructions and suggestions within the parameters of the laws of your state. 

That being said, there are common themes in marital property disputes, one of which is that “title” to real estate is not the same as a “marital interest” in real estate. Title is the link between the person who owns property and the property itself – that is, it is the legal right establishing ownership. Marital interest, on the other hand, is a right to a share of the property. This may be a legal interest or an equitable interest depending on the statutes in your state. This marital interest is why, for example, a husband who is the “sole owner” on his home mortgage or deed can end up having to pay his wife half the value of home’s equity at divorce. 

What rights you and your wife have to your home and the property inside depend on the facts of your case. If you are separated and divorced, then your divorce decree should state those rights. If you are separated but not divorced, you are in a precarious position – if you deny her access to the house, you may deprive her of property that is rightfully hers (this is a crime in some states) or paint yourself as the unreasonable husband in court, but she may encumber property or sell it and conceal the profits if you let her inside. 

You should carefully document what property she removes, when you acquired the property (before or after your marriage) and how (joint funds, a gift, etc.) and your guesstimated value. This information will be helpful as you negotiate your divorce settlement. You should also consult with a lawyer to determine whether you can request an order giving you exclusive use of the home and/or an order restraining your wife or both of you from disposing or encumbering assets (except in the usual course, such as to purchase groceries). 

You should consult with an attorney in your area to discuss what options, if any, you have based on the particular order language and facts in your case.  

 

Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell P.C. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims. Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

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