How Are Funds in a JOINT BANK ACCOUNT Treated in Dissolution or Legal Separation?

Q. My Wife removed all the money from our joint savings account immediately before filing for divorce. Some of that money included an inheritance from my grandmother. What are my rights to recover any of it?

A. When there is a joint bank account in the names of parties who are married, their net contributions to the account is presumed under the law to be and remain their community funds. This applies regardless whether the deposit agreement with the institution describes them as married. Probate Code section 5305(a).

Affected "accounts" mean a contract for deposit of funds between a depositor and a financial institution and includes a checking or savings account, a certificate of deposit, share account, and similar arrangements. Probate Code section 5122(a).

However, this presumption can be rebutted - as in the case of your inheritance contributions to the account if you can meet your burden of proof by either of the following:

  • If some or all of the funds on deposit you contend are your separate property can be traced from separate property (i.e., the inheritance) they will be confirmed to you unless your wife can establish you made a written agreement that expressed a clear intent that those sums would become community property (a transmutation)
  • If the two of you made a written agreement, separate from the deposit agreement itself, that expressly provided that the deposited sums that are claimed not to be community property were in fact not to be community property then you will not be reimbursed.

Hence, you need the paper trail for the receipt of the inheritance monies into this joint account in order to establish they still belong to you as separate property. As long as you do trace these funds, your wife's argument that you gifted the monies to her or the both of you by verbal agreement or by your conduct will not succeed.

However, when monies are commingled over time this tracing becomes more difficult. Particularly in checking accounts, money comes in from other sources (like community earnings) and goes out (often to pay community expenses). The question becomes which money is applied to what outflows?

The law presumes that money that goes out of a commingled account is spent first on the community needs and expenses, meaning that what remains is more likely to be considered separate. The law expects the community to pay community expenses, not that you first use your separate property - as long as their are sufficient community funds on hand. If these community funds become exhausted then withdrawals of what is your separate remaining monies may be lost to the community.

In your situation you have a reimbursement claim for what she took and you should receive a credit on the marital balance sheet. She may owe you 100% of the inheritance and 50% of the balance. Your worst case is that she owes you half of what she took. Immediately begin to collect the needed bank and inheritance records to prove your claims.

Maintaining records during and after marriage is the most important thing you can do to preserve and protect your interests. Unfortunately, few people realize this until after the horse has left the barn.

T.W. Arnold