In divorce, do I have a right to this house?


Q. My wife owned our house before we got married and it was paid for 20 years ago. We are now getting separated. Do I have a right to the house?
— Separated

A. We’re sorry to hear about your marriage.

To answer your question, we will assume your separation will lead to a divorce.

Premarital assets, including a house purchased by one party prior to the date of the marriage, are generally exempt from equitable distribution, said Jeralyn Lawrence, a family law attorney with Lawrence Law in Watchung.

Equitable distribution is the legal term for how marital assets are distributed to each party in a divorce, she said.

She said while this is the general rule of premarital property, there do exist situations where an otherwise exempt asset may be considered marital or quasi-marital, and thus subject to equitable distribution.

“For example, a house purchased by one party prior to the marriage, but in contemplation and anticipation of marriage may result in the non-purchasing party having acquired an interest in the property,” she said.

She said one spouse may also seek an equitable interest in a premarital residence under circumstances where “marital funds, property, or efforts” were used to improve the property.

Under such circumstances, the non-purchasing spouse may be entitled to a share of the increase in value of the property.

“As an example, and under the question posed, if the parties have been sharing the house for 20 years, have paid the bills jointly and the husband spent sweat equity to improve the house, he certainly has an equitable claim to the house when the parties divorce,” she said.

So while New Jersey statutory law generally says that premarital assets are exempt from equitable distribution, there do exist situations where an exempt asset may convert to a marital asset, she said.

Because every case is fact specific, we strongly recommend you consult with a family law attorney about your situation.

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This story was originally published on August 2, 2019. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.