Asset division is a complicated matter. Tennessee is an equitable distribution state, which means that your assets are divided fairly, not necessarily equally. If your divorce is proceeding amicably, you and your spouse may even come to your own agreement about how this is done: perhaps you will keep the family home, but your spouse will keep all of the money in his retirement account, for example. If you cannot decide, then a judge will make the decision for you.
Where gifts are concerned – something that was given to you personally, and not to you and your spouse as a couple – it should be easy. After all, your husband has no use for the delicate tennis bracelet he gave you for an anniversary gift, and you cannot wear the suit you bought him to congratulate him on his new job, right?
But what if the “gift” is a puppy? What if it is an antique diamond ring that he inherited from his grandmother when she passed away, and he had it sized and fitted for you? What if you purchased a piece of artwork for him that led to the two of you building up a collection over a lifetime?
In these cases, the laws regarding gifts, marital property, and separate property may not apply as strictly as they normally would.
Defining marital and separate assets in divorce
Property that one of the parties owned prior to the marriage is usually considered separate property. Generally speaking, gifts given to one party, along with inheritances (like Grandpa’s old war rifle, or the lake house from Aunt Sue, and so on) and some types of personal injury settlements, are not subject to division in divorce. For example, when a couple divorces in Tennessee, the engagement ring does not need to be given back.
Marital property is any asset that either party acquired after the marriage, such as:
- Family home
- Vacation home
- Retirement accounts or pensions
- Cash, bank accounts
- Investment accounts
Transmutation, or when separate property becomes marital property
Separate property can morph into marital property through the process of transmutation. When separate property is used as if it were marital property, it can become marital property. The same is true if you are given an inheritance, which you deposit in a joint account, or use to help fund a business owned by you and/or your partner.
What about the dog?
Let us return to the example of the puppy. Your spouse gives you a puppy for Christmas. Over the years, both you and your husband take care of the dog, using your joint funds to care for him, feed him, and give him a good life. When you get divorced, you might assume that the dog will stay with you; after all, he was a Christmas gift. However, because both you and your spouse cared for the dog – and because dogs, not matter how much we think of them as family – as considered property in Tennessee, you may not automatically be awarded your pet.
The same is true for the piece of artwork you purchased for your husband. While it is likely that he would retain ownership of that piece, if the collection you amassed over time must be divided equally, or sold as part of your agreement, then it is possible he would not be able to keep that gift.
As for the ring from grandma, well – it could get complicated. A judge may award you the jewelry because the ring was a gift. However, a judge may also decide that, because it was a family piece, your spouse should regain ownership of it.
Divorce is rarely easy. You’re going to need knowledgeable, practical counsel when it comes to resolving any conflicts that arise. When you work with an experienced Nashville divorce attorney, she can advise you about what happens next, and what your options are for keeping what’s rightfully yours. If challenges arise, you want someone who knows how to fight for you, too.
At Miller Upshaw Family Law, PLLC, we offer you a clear path forward through the challenges of divorce. When you have decided to get a divorce, we are here to help. You can reserve an in-person or video consultation at our Nashville office by calling 615-391-4200 or contacting us online today.