Mine, Yours, and Ours in a Virginia Divorce

Mine, Yours, and Ours in a Virginia Divorce

How Do Virginia Courts & Mediators View Equitable Distribution When a Husband and Wife Commingle Separate (Non-Marital) and Marital Property?

In Virginia divorce law, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to the division and distribution of property[1] when the divorcing couple does not agree on whether that property is “marital property”, “separate property” or a combination thereof (known as “hybrid property”). This confusion is unfortunate because how property is classified is extremely important in terms of what is on and what is off limits to Virginia judges when they make their “taketh and giveth” decisions. In a Virginia divorce, courts may only order the division, distribution and sale of jointly owned marital property.

The perplexing, often counterintuitive state of the law in Virginia, when it comes to classifying property as “marital” (subject to judicial division, distribution and sale) or “separate” (off limits to judicial orders) is the cause of intense litigation and outrageous attorney fees – which is never good for families.

Some of the biggest court battles, in a Virginia divorce, occur when property has characteristics of both marital and separate property – known as “hybrid property”. With hybrid property, Virginia judges are only permitted to order the division, distribution and sale of that portion of the hybrid property that is classified as marital. The problem is that not all reasonable people agree on how and where that split between the two classifications should take place. In litigation, the final decision, after presentation of the evidence, lies with the judge. In comparison, clients who mediate make those decisions themselves after the mediator has informed them of the law, legal culture and trends in their area.

In this article, I have broken down the Virginia statutory law in this area, which is found in §107.3 of the Code of Virginia. This is the basic law and, though it does not get into some of the complexities and nuances that attorneys sometimes wrangle with in the form of “case law”, §107.3 is robust in its coverage of this area of the law. For a more comprehensive view of how hybrid Real Estate matters are handled, though, see my blog article “The Wild West of Divorce Law as Concerns Real Estate in Virginia”.

In a mediated, versus litigated, divorce settlement, divorcing couples have the option of applying or not applying the legal definitions of and methods of classifying property. A good Virginia divorce mediator will be able to inform you of what the law is, and how it is usually applied in court, but it is ultimately up to the divorcing couple to decide whether or not to apply §107.3 to the various issues in their case.

What guides couples in mediation, in addition to the law, when it comes to classifying property as marital, separate or some of each (“hybrid property”), depends on several factors which include, but are not limited to:

  • the parties’ sense of personal justice and fairness;
  • the parties’ history of financial management, discussion and planning;
  • the parties’ goals both before the decision to divorce and post-divorce;
  • the needs of the children; and
  • the needs and fears of both spouses.

 In mediation, parties make their own decisions about what is “good and right and proper” with regard to the classification, division and distribution of property in a divorce situation – even if their decisions are not in line with what a judge could do. Often times, mediation clients make much better decisions for their unique circumstances than a judge could ever do.

             The material in this article may seem overwhelming and . . . it is! According to many of my clients, the law in this area is not only confusing (until I explain it to them J), but often counterintuitive. Hopefully, after reading my breakdown of Virginia Law in this arena, you will not find it too confusing – but I almost guarantee that some readers will still find it counterintuitive, unfair, ridiculous and/or in need of a revamp. Nonetheless, this is the law.

BASIC DEFINITIONS

Q: What is SEPARATE PROPERTY?

A: Per §20-107.3(A)(1) of the Virginia Code, SEPARATE PROPERTY is that property which was:

  • Acquired BEFORE the marriage;
  • Acquired by INHERITENCE;
  • Acquired by GIFT (to only 1 spouse, not to the couple; not a gift from one spouse to the other);
  • Acquired as a result of an EXCHANGE FOR or from the PROCEEDS of a SALE of Separate Property

Also, in order for that separate property to maintain its classification as separate property, it must be maintained separately (i.e. not “commingled”).

Q: What is MARITAL PROPERTY?

A: Per §20-107.3(A)(2) of the Virginia Code, MARITAL PROPERTYis that property which was acquired by each party during the marriage (and which is not separate property as described in §20-107.3(A)(1)).

Q: Are there PRESUMPTIONS?

A #1: It is PRESUMED that all property (including retirement benefits) acquired by either spouse DURING THE MARRIAGE AND BEFORE THE LAST SEPARATION of the parties (with the intention, by at least one of the parties, that the separation be permanent) is MARITAL PROPERTY . . . unless there is “SATISFACTORY EVIDENCE” (the code’s phrase), pursuant to §20-107.3(A)(2), that it is separate property.

A #2: It is PRESUMED that all marital property is JOINTLY OWNED unless there is a deed, title, or other clear indicia that it is not jointly owned.

Q: Is Jointly Owned Property Presumed to be Marital Property?

A: NO! Per §20-107.3(A)(3)(f), when property is retitled in the parties’ joint names (JT), the retitled property is deemed TRANSMUTED to marital property, except to the extent that contributed property is RETRACEABLE by: (a) a PREPONDERANCE of the evidence, and (b) the act of retitling was NOT tantamount to the making of a GIFT.

NOTE: Virginia Law does not presume that retitling of separate property into the married couple’s joint names, during the marriage, defines that retitling act as “gifting of” that property to the marriage! §20-107.3(A)(3)(h).

COMMINGLING, TRANSMUTATION & TRACING

            (1) Definition – Commingling: The act of contributing one classification/category of property (e.g. separate property) into another classification/category of property that has the adverse classification/category (e.g. marital property).

            (2) Definition – Transmutation: When property is commingled, the contributed property takes on the classification of the receiving property = “TRANSMUTATION” (i.e. it is “swallowed up” and “disappears” into the receiving property thereby losing its prior classification status.

            (3) Tracing per 20-107.3(A)(3)(d): Although commingled property is automatically transmuted to the receiving property’s classification, that contributed property may not transmute to the receiving property’s classification, to the extent that it is RETRACEABLE by a:

  • PREPONDERANCE of the evidence (the evidentiary standard required of the party who did the contributing)

and . . .

  • Was NOT a GIFT. NOTE: Virginia Law does not presume that a commingling event defines the transaction as a “gift” (unlike in many other jurisdictions). §20-107.3(A)(3)(h)

Frye v Frye, Record No. 1829-10-4, May 03, 2011 – VA Court of Appeals; Robinson v Robinson, 46 Va.App. 652, 621 S.E.2d 147, Va.App., October 25, 2005 (NO. 1879-04-2); Theisman v Theisman, 22 Va.App. 557, 566, 471 S>E>2d 809, 813, aff’d on reh’g en ban 23 Va.App 687, 479 S.E.2d 534 (1996); and others: To establish the existence of a gift, such that a spouse’s separate property became marital property for purposes of an equitable distribution, the spouse claiming that there was a gift is required to prove, by CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE, the following three elements:

(a) The INTENTION on the part of the donor to make the gift;

(b) The DELIVERY or TRANSFERof the gift; and

(c) The ACCEPTANCEof the gift by the donee.

(4) Newly Acquired Property per 20-107.3(A)(3)(e): When marital and separate property are COMMINGLED into NEWLY ACQUIRED PROPERTY[2] during the marriage[3] (defined below), resulting in the loss of identity of the contributing property, the commingled property is then transmuted to marital property, except to the extent that the contributed (non-marital) property is retraceable by a

  • PREPONDERANCE of the evidence (the evidentiary standard required of the party who did the contributing)

and

  • Was NOT a GIFT.   NOTE: Virginia Law does not presume that acquiring new property, during the marriage, with separate property defines that transaction/purchase as a “gift”. §20-107.3(A)(3)(h).

If the evidentiary burden is met, then the contributed property will retains its original classification. 20-107.3(A)(3)(f)

(5) Retitled in Joint Names per §20-107.3(A)(3)(f): When property is retitled in the parties’ joint names (JT), the retitled property is deemed transmuted to marital property, except to the extent that the contributed property is retraceable by a

  • PREPONDERANCE of the evidence (the evidentiary standard required of the party who did the contributing)

and

  • Was NOT a GIFT. NOTE: Virginia Law does not presume that retitling separate property into the married couple’s joint names, during the marriage, defines that retitling act as “gifting” that property to the marriage. §20-107.3(A)(3)(h) (although the opposite is true is other jurisdictions)

If the evidentiary burden is met, the contributed property retains its original classification. 20-107.3(A)(3)(f)

(6) One Party’s Separate Property is Commingled into the Separate Property of the Other Party per 20-107.3(A)(3)(g): In this type of situation, each party is entitled to be reimbursed the value of their contributed property to the extent that the contributed property is retraceable by a

  • PREPONDERANCE of the evidence (the evidentiary standard required of the party who did the contributing)

and

  • Was NOT a GIFT

(7) The Separate Property of Each Party is Commingled into the Parties’ Newly Acquired Jointly Owned (Marital) Property per 20-107.3(A)(3)(g): In this type of situation, each party is entitled to be reimbursed the value of their contributed property to the extent that that contributed property is retraceable by a

  • PREPONDERANCE of the evidence (the evidentiary standard required of both parties)

and

  • Was NOT a GIFT

INCREASES IN VALUE OF SEPARATE PROPERTY & INCOME CREATED FROM SEPARATE PROPERTY

Q: If INCOME is Produced from Separate Property, is that Income also Separate Property?

A: Per §20-107.3(A)(1) of the Virginia Code, income acquired as a result of ownership in separate property remains separate unless:

  • The income is produced as the result of the PERSONAL EFFORTS[4] of either party . . .

but . . .

  • The income produced, as a result of the personal efforts of either party, is only classified as marital property TO THE EXTENT THAT THE INCOME PRODUCED IS DIRECTLY ATTRIBUTABLE TO THOSE PERSONAL EFFORTS. §20-107.3(A)(3) [the statute does not mention any need for the personal efforts to be “significant” or for the income produced to be “substantial”, in contradistinction to increases in value]

Q: If there is an INCREASE IN VALUE of Separate Property, is that Increase in Value also Separate Property?

A: Per §20-107.3(A)(1) & §20-107.3(A)(3) of the Virginia Code, the Increase in Value of Separate Property remains separate unless:

  • The Increase in Value is due to the PERSONAL EFFORTS of either spouse

                 and . . .

  • The Personal Efforts were SIGNIFICANT

and . . .

  • The Increase in Value must be SUBSTANTIAL

but . . .

  • The Increase in Value becomes Marital Property only to the EXTENT that the INCREASE in Value is DIRECTLY ATTRIBUTABLE TO those PERSONAL EFFORTS (“Active Appreciation”)

See Courembis v Courembis, 43 Va.App. 18, 595 S.E.2d 505 (2004) and Divorce Source article: http://www.divorcesource.com/research/edj/appreciation/04jun61.shtml

Q: If there is an INCREASE IN VALUE of Separate Property due to CONTRIBUTIONS of MARITAL PROPERTY to that Separate Property, is that Increase in Value also Separate Property?

A:   Per §20-107.3(A)(1) of the Virginia Code, the increase in value of separate property, which is the result of marital property contributions, changes the classification of that increased value to marital property

BUT . . .

  • Only to the EXTENT that the INCREASE IN VALUE is DIRECTLY ATTRIBUTABLE to the marital contribution. (§20-107.3(A)(3))

BURDENS OF PROOF

Under §20-107.3(A)(3)

Q: Increase in Value: Who bears the burden of proof when there is a question regarding PERSONAL EFFORTS (during the marriage, i.e. marital efforts) or CONTRIBUTIONS OF MARITAL PROPERTY having the effect of increasing the value of separate property?       

A-1: The NON-OWNING SPOUSE (the spouse without the separate property interest) bears the burden of proving that:

  • the contributions of marital property and/or personal efforts (during the marriage by either or both spouses, i.e. marital efforts) were made;

                   and . . .

  • the separate property increased in value (no increase in value, discussion over!).

Once this burden of proof is met then:

A-2: The burden SHIFTS, and the OWNING SPOUSE (the spouse with the separate property interest) bears the burden of proving that:

  • the increase in value (or some portion thereof) was not caused by the contributions of marital property or by the personal efforts of one or both spouses. §20-107.3(A)(3).

Q: What is the Burden of Proof in terms of Debts Acquired After the Marriage (in Virginia = after Separation) being classified as Marital Debts?

 A: Per §20-107.3(A)(4) – To the extent a party can show, by a PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE, that debt acquired post separation was “incurred for the benefit of the marriage or family, the court may designate the debt as marital.”

Q: What is the Burden of Proof in terms of Debt Acquired During the Marriage being Separate Debt?

 A: Per §20-107.3(A)(5) – To the extent a party can show, by a PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE, that “the proceeds secured by incurring the debt were used, in whole or in part, for a non-marital purpose” that debt will be classified as separate debt.

COURT RESTRICTIONS ON TRANSFERS & DIVISIONS

 In Virginia, courts have no authority to order the division or transfer of separate property/debt OR marital property/debt which is NOT JOINTLY OWNED. §20-107.3(C). (Remember: Virginia assumes that all property acquired during the marriage is jointly owned, unless otherwise indicated by proper documents (e.g. account statements, deeds, titles, certificates, etc). §20-107.3(A)(2)

PERSONAL INJURY AND WORKER’S COMPENSATION

§20-107.3(A)(3)                                  §20-107.3(H)

The court may direct payment of a % of the marital share (defined below) of any personal injury or worker’s compensation recovery of either party.

  • This is true whether such recovery is payable in a lump sum or over a period of time.
  • The court, however, will only direct that payment be made as such recovery is payable to the injured party. (Same time periods, methods of payment, etc.)

Marital Share defined: The marital share of Personal Injury Payments or Worker’s Compensation is defined as: That part of the total PI/WC recovery attributable to LOST WAGES AND/OR MEDICAL EXPENSES that are not covered by health insurance accruing during the marriage (before separation).

If you are considering divorce, and have a situation wherein separate property has been commingled with marital property, mediation may be the best and least expensive method of working through this issue and coming up with a mutual agreeable solution for settlement. Give Graine Mediation a call at 571-220-1998 to discuss your situation. Mediation is appropriate for most people who are considering divorce unless there is a history of domestic violence, child abuse or concealment of assets. Whether you choose Graine Mediation, or opt for another mediation firm, and there are issues of hybrid (commingled) property, consider choosing an attorney-mediator who knows the law and can guide you through the complexities of this area of Virginia law.

[1] “Property” is a comprehensive terms that includes personal property, real property, tangible property and intangible property. That means that the term “property” includes money, investments, houses, land, collectibles, furniture, automobiles, animals, and just about any other “thing” that you can think of (except children!).

[2] Example: Wife comes into the marriage with an inheritance ($). She uses that $, in combination with money she and H earned during the marriage, to purchase a boat (before the husband & wife separated).

[3] During the Marriage” defined:Property acquired from the date of marriage (DOM) through date of separation (DOS) (agreed or adjudicated). If couple agrees, “during the marriage” can also means DOM through date of divorce (not, the legal definition of separation in Virginia…but may be agreed upon by the parties (and is common in many of the jurisdictions)).

[4] Personal Efforts defined: Labor, effort, inventiveness, physical or intellectual skill, creativity, or managerial, promotional or marketing activity applied directly to the separate property of either party. §20-107.3(A)(3)


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