Most parents want to ensure their children have every advantage and opportunity they can afford to provide to ensure they are successful and happy. Many parents also want to leave a financial legacy for their children after they pass away in the form of trusts or inheritances. These gifts of money or inheritances are fairly straightforward. Under California law, any property received either by gift, bequest, devise, or descent, including the income derived therefrom, is considered the separate property of the party receiving the money. Like I said, it's pretty straightforward. The complications arise when the receipt of this property or money is commingled (mixed) with community property money. Unraveling the rat's nest of commingled funds can not only be expensive, but is often impossible. This is especially true when the parties have been married for a long time.
So how can you ensure you keep your inheritance after a divorce? While not bullet proof or exhaustive, the following items can help you to keep this property separate.
Don't Co-mingle your funds
This is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure that your separate money stays that way. If you expect an inheritance, or received one prior to your marriage, keep that money in a separate account in your name only. Never put income earned during marriage into that account for any reason. Once you comingle community and separate money, you will be required to perform a tracing using a forensic accountant to unravel the transaction. If that sounds expensive, you're right. Depending on the amount of transaction, and the span of time involved, tracing separate and community funds can costs tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
Do a Pre-nup or Post-Nup
A prenuptial agreement (before marriage) and a post-nuptial agreement (after marriage) are one way to define what property or money is separate and what property or money is community. These agreements can be very helpful if a marriage ends in divorce, but they are not fool proof. Even if you have a bullet proof pre-nup, that does not stop the other party from contesting it. Just ask Donald Trump. About Ivana's challenge to Donald Trump's prenuptial agreement, Trump wrote, "[w]e needed a bus to get Ivana's lawyers to court. It was a disaster, but I had a solid pre-nup, and it held up." More importantly, even with a prenuptial agreement, if you commingle your separate property funds with community property, you could end up spending thousands of dollars just to unravel the mess.
Do an Irrevocable Trust
If you anticipate receiving an inheritance, setting up an irrevocable trust can separate and protect the principal of that inheritance. If the trust pays out income to you, that can still be considered for spousal or child support, but the trust will protect the principal assets and money.
Live within your means
In California, using your separate property to pay community property bills is generally considered a gift that you cannot get back. Regular gifts of income from family that are used to pay community bills can also be considered part of the marital standard of living, so be careful how this money is spent. This is not to say that you cannot use your separate property for your family, just know that if you do, it is unlikely you will get it back.
By considering the items above and speaking with a financial planner who specializes in divorce, as well as a qualified family law attorney, you can set in place a plan to protect your separate property assets in the event of a divorce.
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