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Under Pennsylvania’s divorce laws, virtually everything that comes into a spouse’s possession while the couple is married AND living together (cohabiting) is considered part of the marital estate and is subject to being equitably (economically fair, not necessarily 50-50) divided in a divorce action; however, the law makes several clearly spelled-out exceptions. An inheritance left to one spouse can be such an exception.

Why do I say “can be” an exception? Because, like the other exceptions, if one spouse receives something then makes it a gift to the marriage – by putting it in both names, for example – then what might have remained the property of just that one spouse has become the property of both spouses… marital property.

Accordingly, if your rich Uncle Harry passes away and he leaves something to you – just you, not you and your spouse – and you put it in an account in your sole name, keep it in your sole name and never use it or any part of it to benefit the marriage, then it is likely not to become marital property in the event of a divorce action. Bear in mind that there are subtle ways to use that inheritance to benefit the marriage without touching even one penny of it. For example, if you and your spouse borrow money together for any purpose and you allow the inheritance to be used as an asset to assure that the loan will be approved, then you would have just used the inheritance for the benefit of the marriage. Even if just the very existence of the inheritance benefits you in some way but not your spouse, because you are married to your spouse, it could be argued that anything that benefits you while you are married necessarily benefits the marriage. Making that argument successfully will depend on the specific facts. It is possible that the benefit to your spouse in such a scenario could be so slight as to not be held to be a marital benefit.

Naturally, when a married couple is getting along just fine, the tendency is to lump all assets together. Keeping an inheritance purposely in one’s sole name could be the beginning of the end of the marriage.