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I Have Been Paying the MORTGAGE Since SEPARATION - Am I Entitled to WATTS CREDITS?

Q. I have been occupying our family home alone since my wife left over a year ago. I pay all the interest only mortgage, property taxes, and insurance with no help from her. Does she owe me half of any of this?

Art, Anza Borrego, CA


You may be owed you something, but not necessarily one-half of what you have paid out, and different categories of expenses may be treated differently.

This situation involves at least three potential legal concepts:

  • Epstein Credits (Payment of CP Debts Reimbursed)
  • Watts Credits (Reimbursement for Exclusive Use of CP)
  • Jeffries Credits (Combination of Epstein and Watts Reimbursements)

What Are Epstein Credits

"Epstein credits" is a doctrine that holds that as a general rule courts must reimburse one spouse who uses earnings or other separate funds after separation to pay pre-existing community estate obligations. Courts may not order this reimbursement if under the circumstances it would be unreasonable for the paying spouse to have expected reimbursement. Where payments are made on account of a debt for an asset that the paying spouse was or is using and the amount was not substantially in excess of the value of the use, the Court may decline to order reimbursement. This Blog addresses your question in terms of Watts and Jeffries credits that may be owing you upon divorce or legal separation - the prior blog details Epstein credits.


Watts and Jeffries Credits

We speak in terms of "Watts credits" when one party has the exclusive beneficial use of community property. When money is owed on that asset, "Jeffries" reimbursements or set-offs for the payment of that debt also come into play. On the one hand you are enjoying the use of a valuable jointly owned asset and should reimburse the community for that use; on the other you are paying something to a creditor for that use, and that amount should be deducted from what you owe the community. Watts is a calculation for the value of what should be charged for an exclusive enjoyment of community property by one spouse; Jeffries combines the value of that use with reimbursements under an Epstein analysis. Marriage of Watts (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 366, 373-374; Marriage of Jeffries (1991) 228 Cal.App. 3d 548, 552-553.

Family lawyers most often see Watts and Jeffries issues arise in disputes over residences occupied by one spouse alone. In practice none of these concepts are typically applied to automobiles, although in theory they should be, or other consumer goods.

While Epstein credits are generally viewed by trial judges to be mandatory reimbursements, allowing Watts and Jeffries credits is discretionary. Having a working knowledge of your local judicial bench officer's attitude on these subjects is an important bit of information for you to obtain.

Watts credits and Jeffries credits are obviously implicated in your question since you occupy the house for which you seek mortgage and other payment credits and reimbursements.

This is how Watts Credit issues typically arise - you and your wife jointly own a home, and both of you are obligated on the mortgage. Assume the monthly mortgage payment is $3,200 (interest only in your case), the taxes average $400/month, and insurance costs $1,200/year. Mortgage payments are made on the 15th of the month, and she moves out on January 14, 2009. You were unable to make the payment on December 15, 2008, so there are two payments due on January 15. On January 15 you make these two payments, and then continue to make all these payments until the present time or the date of settlement or trial. You occupy the residence the entire time. You also incur charges for water for the landscaping, etc., along with the cable bill, electricity, phone and trash. You have a gardener and a pool man that together amount to $250/month.

Hence, you are spending $3,700 on the mortgage, taxes, and insurance plus the $250 for upkeep, along with whatever you pay for utilities each month. Over time this amount can grow to a considerable number.

Assume you had to borrow the money to pay December late from your mother. This is your separate property debt to Mom if borrowed after separation. But because your wife lived at the house up until the day she moved which include all of January, you are entitled to the equivalent of an Epstein reimbursement. Watts and Jeffries don't yet apply. The obligation existed before separation, was paid after separation, and the source of payment was your separate property. The community estate owed the payment, which means you owed one-half too (she also owes one-half the utilities charged during the same period as well that were paid with your separate property).

Watts and Jeffries credits answer questions how to deal with expenses you paid after she left where you had use of the home during some some of or the entire period. Watts credits deal with the value of that use, and Jeffries deal with the value of the use less a reimbursement claim for the cost to you of that use. Both parties can have these claims for the same property at different times, or one party may assert these reimbursements as against one property while the other may assert them as to another.

What if instead of you living in the home after separation, it was rented to others but the rent didn't cover all the house related debt service? The rents are deducted from the total and you each owe one-half of the shortfall. If you advanced the difference, you are entitled to one-half back from your wife.


Watts' Analysis

So, where one party enjoys exclusive use of a CP asset how is the reimbursement calculated?

As a pure Watts credit analysis, assume a community property house is free and clear other than upkeep and utilities and that you lived there for a time - effectively rent free since there is no mortgage. You can imagine how it might be unfair for you to receive this benefit without paying for it. The amount of reimbursement you owe the community depends upon the property's fair rental value. Fair rental value (FRV) is what you would expect to pay monthly to rent the same or a similar property on the open market in an arm's length transactions. It is usually proven by expert broker or appraiser testimony, but as an owner of property you are free to testify to what you think its fair rental value is (as is the other spouse). Whether your opinion is believed or given weight by the court depends upon the assumptions you make in arriving at your opinion of FRV (as well as perceived credibility).

If the FRV is $3,000/month, and you reside in the house for 15 months from date of separation to time of trial, the total value of your use is $45,000. From this you would deduct fixed expenses like taxes ($400/month) and insurance ($100/month). You would therefore owe the community $2,500 x 15 = $37,500, but since you own half the community the net reimbursement to the other party is one-half that amount. You may also be able to deduct the gardener and pool man particularly where those payments help to maintain the asset itself. You might even deduct repairs depending upon the circumstances (installing a solid gold toilet wouldn't qualify).

All of these reimbursements are "Watts charges" to you. They are "Watts credits" to the party to be reimbursed.


Jeffries' Analysis

The more common situation is that some mortgage debt for the house you occupy is being paid monthly. Assume it to be $2,000 combined (including mortgage, taxes, and insurance). If the FRV is $3,000/month but you pay $2,000 monthly then the net benefit to you is $1,000 each month or $15,000 total. You would owe a Watts reimbursement of one-half that sum, or $7,500, on the marital balance sheet or as a direct payment to your spouse.

This is a Jeffries situation. Note that it assumes that these costs to you were paid by your separate property. If instead you used community monies remaining in a bank account after the DOS to pay this debt (or CP funds from some other source) then you do not subtract that from the fair rental value because the community estate has already been charged.

BTW, an interesting twist on this question these days involves what happens when there is a mortgage but the party in possession fails or refuses to pay it. They are living there at no effective charge while the other spouse may be actually paying rent elsewhere. In that case you should not receive a credit for one-half the debt you did not actually pay, but it is difficult to predict how a judge will handle this. After all, you may continue to owe the money and have to repay it later. Now what happens if you then decide to file a bankruptcy, so then never have to pay it because the debt is discharged? That bankruptcy if properly drafted should also destroy any reimbursement claims of your spouse altogether. Great unfairness can occur in these situations. In my experience many of the legal rules for these reimbursement claims developed in a completely different economy and fairness and common sense is struggling to keep up with the new world order.

These days with the mortgage and real estate bust another situation frequently arises: The amount a spouse pays to maintain the mortgage and related asset expenses may exceed the FRV of the property. Should the other spouse be charged with half of this net loss, and so forced to underwrite some of it?

Assume in the illustration above that the costs remain the same, but the mortgage is $4,000/month. Since FRV is $3,000, you are overpaying by $1,000. Are you entitled to a credit back for one-half of the net loss? In my experience most courts won't give it to you but make the argument anyway. Courts seem to feel that if you choose to live in a place that you want the other side to help underwrite, when cheaper alternate arrangements are available, then your choice to stay there should not bind the other person. The court cannot tell you what choices to make, but it can refuse to let you benefit unfairly by them.

This makes sense on at least one level - imagine that you have a large, beautiful, expensive home that is way under water, and that your estranged wife insists on continuing to live in it despite the fact that the costs to keep it are far in excess of what comparable lodgings would cost. Naturally she wants you to absorb as much of this to whatever extent possible which lowers her incentive to move. If she was allowed to stay and charge you for one-half the difference between a $10,000 mortgage and its $5,000 rental value, she might continue to reside in this losing, nonproductive asset if she effectively only paid $7,500/month after credit for your $2,500.


Conclusion

While Epstein reimbursements appear to be mandatory in dividing the community assets and liabilities, Watts and Jeffries credits are viewed as discretionary reimbursements. Many judges don't favor these reimbursements and so exercise their discretion to deny them. I tell my clients not to count on them in negotiating settlements, and many lawyers refuse to take the argument seriously when negotiating settlement. Another reason why lawyers tend to treat them as inconsequential, besides bluffing, is that they can be expensive to prove and so you are being tested as to whether you have the stamina or the money to assert these claims at trial. After all, it is best to have forensic experts testify to them, and these individuals may include an accountant and a broker/appraiser.

One solution is to request the family court to bifurcate the issue so that a short, separate trial occurs on the Watts/Jeffries issues alone. Once the amount of Watts or Jeffries credits is fixed by judicial decision you can now place it on the marital balance sheet in your settlement discussions on the remaining issues.

The success of a Watts or Jeffries claim are fact specific. In doing justice and equally dividing the community estate, there is broad spectrum of fairness running from "its not big deal" to being "really unfair." You will not get much traction where the consequence of not reimbursing Watts credits or imposing Watts charges is a small number. But where one party enjoys the asset alone without paying creditors, a very strong argument exists in favor of finding reimbursements.

Finally, be sure to include reference to Esptein reimbursements and Watts and Jeffries in your Declarations of Disclosure to make it clear that you are asserting such a claim. If you are the spouse in possession omit any reference to it. It is not your job to assert that argument against yourself.

Author: Thurman W. Arnold




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