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Is an as-of-yet unreceived inheritance at risk during divorce?

Massachusetts courts aim to divide marital income and assets in a fair and appropriate manner during litigated divorces. Spouses either agree with one another during negotiations on a specific property division settlement or ask a judge to rule on property division matters.

Real property, retirement savings and business holdings can trigger conflict during Massachusetts divorces. People may also fight over property that people assume belongs to only one spouse. For example, if family members of either spouse die, it may take quite some time for the inheritance they left to pass through probate court. Is an inheritance someone has not received at risk of division in a Massachusetts divorce?

Unreceived assets are likely separate property

Most inherited property is separate property for the purposes of property division. It isn’t at risk in most cases. The one scenario in which an inheritance could be at immediate risk involves the decedent naming both spouses in their testamentary documents. If the testator named both people in a will, then the division of the inheritance is likely regardless of when the estate passes through probate.

Most of the time, families only leave an inheritance to immediate family members. In-laws only access an inheritance because of their marriages. In some cases, an inheritance received during the marriage could be vulnerable to division. If someone commingled their inheritance with marital property, possibly by adding their spouse to the deed for an inherited home or depositing funds into a shared account, then the inheritance might be at risk of division.

Inherited property that someone has not yet had access to would not be subject to commingling and therefore would remain the separate property of the spouse named in the estate plan. Even if the other spouse may feel like they deserve a portion of the inheritance, the courts typically do not view inherited property as marital property unless significant commingling or other mistakes occur.

Understanding what to expect during the property division process in a Massachusetts divorce may benefit those who want to protect certain assets. Seeking personalized legal guidance is generally a good idea in this regard.