I Bought the Marital Residence Prior to My Marriage, is My Partner Entitled to Half the House When We Get Divorced?
Equitable Distribution of marital property is one of the main issues we work with every day as Divorce Attorneys on Long Island. One of the largest assets of most couples is their Long Island home, so naturally, equitably distributing any equity in that home becomes a major issue in the divorce cases we represent. The issue has become slightly more complex in recent years as one or both of the spouses may purchase a home prior to marriage.
You bought your house 10, or even 15 years ago. Maybe you were dating your partner or maybe you were single; either way, you used your own funds to make the down payment on the residence. Your relationship is going well, or you enter a new relationship, and you ask your partner to move in with you. You live together for a period of time and then decide to get married and the residence you purchased served as the marital residence. Unfortunately, you now find yourself facing a divorce. Your partner is claiming a right in the residence that you purchased, including a portion of the down payment, and naturally, you are fighting that assertion.
Where it used to be that a couple seeking to buy a home would purchase the marital residence with marital funds, the above scenario is becoming increasingly common. Many individuals in relationships find themselves plagued down with debt and student loans, and therefore it happens that only one or the other can afford to purchase a home. One purchases the home with his or her separate funds and both live in the residence. Of course at the time of buying a home together or asking your partner to move in, you are not thinking of the consequences if years down the road after marriage either one of you seeks a divorce.
Did I Gift the Equity in My Home to My Partner?
If you purchased the residence with your own funds, you likely do not want to lose half of that amount to your partner. A New York case, Koehler v. Koehler, deals directly with this issue, and stands for the proposition that the purchasing spouse may be able to recover the entire down payment, leaving the non-purchasing spouse with no interest in the same.
In Koehler, the parties were engaged to be married when the Plaintiff purchase a piece of real property using her own separate funds. However, she placed title to the property in the name of both the Plaintiff and the Defendant as joint tenants. The parties moved into the residence together and the Plaintiff continued to pay all the expenses related to the residence, including the maintenance and improvements. The Plaintiff thereafter filed for divorce, and the Defendant asserted that the Plaintiff had intended to gift him 50% of the value of the real property. Although the Court concluded that the real property was marital property and generally subject to equitable distribution, it held that to award the Defendant any portion of the original purchase price paid by the Plaintiff would be unconscionable. It is important to note that the Defendant was entitled to an equal share of any sum in excess of the purchase price. Additionally, while placing the title of real property in the name of another individual raises a presumption of donative intent, that presumption can be rebutted with credible evidence to the contrary. The Court found that the Plaintiff did not intend to gift the real property to the Defendant, but rather the transfer was the result of Plaintiff’s affection for the Defendant and her desire to ensure he had a place to live during their marriage and in the event she were to predecease him. Additionally, the Court noted that even if there was donative intent on behalf of the Plaintiff, “the fact that the purchase was consummated through the sole use of the [P]laintiff’s resources negates any right of the defendant to obtain any recoupment beyond the value of his own contribution.”
New York’s Second Department also briefly addressed this issue in Vincent v. Vincent. In Vincent, the parties took title to a piece of real property as joint tenants, with the Plaintiff providing $28,000 toward the purchase price and the Defendant providing less than $3,800. The Defendant’s claim that he was a joint owner of the property and therefore had a 50 percent interest in the property, including the purchase price, was rejected. The Court stated that “[w]hile a party may legally hold joint title to property, a constructive trust will be imposed if it can be shown that the property was acquired under such circumstances that the holder of the legal title should not  retain it.”
What Does This Mean for Me in My Long Island Divorce?
If you purchased your marital residence with your own separate funds before your marriage, it is important to be aware that there is New York case law supporting the fact that you may recover 100 percent of that down payment or even the entire purchase price of the home. Each case is different, and there are likely many factors which may alter the conclusion. If you find yourself in this position it is important to discuss these issues with your Long Island Divorce Attorney.
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Have questions about how to equitable divide your property during your Divorce on Long Island? The compassionate and experienced Long Island Divorce Attorneys at Robert E. Hornberger, Esq., PC are here to help. We have a long and successful history of representing couples and individuals in Nassau and Suffolk County to ensure their interests are protected during their divorce. Contact us at 631-923-1910 for a complimentary divorce consultation, or fill out the form on this page and we’ll get right back to you.