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0209: Why “Tracing” is Important to Determine Separate & Marital Property

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Visit us at for the #1 divorce resources in the USA and get personalized help. Learn about coaching services here.   In divorce, one of the big questions is whether something is separate property or marital property. If it's separate property, than the person who had it before divorce keeps it. And if it's marital property, the value needs to be split amongst the people divorcing. And so, one of the questions that we deal with a lot and I help people navigate is how do prove whether something is separate property or marital property. And what do I mean? Well, the most common is an inheritance. If an inheritance was given to one person, is that still considered separate property or is it marital property? Inheritances, sometimes they're small, but sometimes they are very big because they can be a parent's lifetime of savings. Could be something like a retirement account, where there was money in the account before you got married and then it grew during the marriage. But how much of that is marital property that you split and how much of that is considered separate property? What about the house? Same deal is what if you bought it before you were married. Does a person who bought the home beforehand own the house or not. It could be things like trust, business interest. There's a lot of different assets and many different questions that can arise when trying to determine whether something is separate or marital property. It's a big deal because if you prove that something's separate property, it doesn't get split, but if you prove it's marital property, the value does get split as part of the divorce process. But the big challenge is, is how do you prove something is one type of property or another. And it's an important discussion and something that we work with on a lot of our divorce calls or coaching calls, I should say, for people going through divorce or preparing to go through divorce. And the difference or figuring out the answer can often mean the difference between hundreds of thousands of dollars that one spouse gets or has to give up or even millions of dollars in some cases depending upon the asset. The problem with this subject is it's really complicated and I'm going to discuss a term called tracing. It's T-R-A-C-I-N-G, tracing. And that's going to be the subject of today's episode. And it's the process of figuring out whether if something is separate or marital property. And to compound things further is sometimes an asset that you're discussing or even a debt in some cases that you're discussing can be both separate and marital property at the same time. And so, figuring out what it is can be extra complicated. And really for the sake of this episode, I want to focus really on just two things. I want to introduce you to the subject, but the two things I want to focus on are one, getting the appropriate documentation. And two is hiring the appropriate financial experts. So, the first and biggest and most complex challenge with tracing assets is having the documentation. And for the sake of the example, I started the episode with different types of examples, but we're going to take a retirement account for the sake of an example as I walk through this episode because it's easy to illustrate the point as to why this gets complicated. One of the biggest issues with getting the documentation is that it can be old. If you've been married 10 years, then you have to go back and get statements from 10 years ago. If you've been married 20 years, then it could be 20 years ago. If it's been 40 years, then you're trying to get documentation from 40 years ago. And as businesses change, as the world changes, a lot of the institutions that you may have had at the beginning don't have those account statements at in their records anymore. Some times they might only have a year or three years or five years. And so, trying to go back and get 10 or 20 years or 30 years of data is very difficult. But the important part is, or why this is so important, is that you need to be able to track where every dollar came and went to the extent possible over the timeline of your marriage. Now, here's a really important question to ask your attorney because state laws really differ on this subject, but many states have laws in place that property is assumed to be marital unless you can prove it as separate. And so, you really need to be careful because other states have different rules regarding this. So I don't want to generalize too much on this point, but this is why getting the documentation is important is if you can't prove or oftentimes if a spouse can't prove that the property is indeed separate, it's marital property. It needs to be split. Now, depending upon what side of the issue you're on, that could be good for you or th