Dear Moneyist,

I live in Florida with my husband. Things have not been going great lately and I am planning to divorce him. We have lived in this state for two years. We were both born and raised in Indiana. While living in Indiana before ever marriage, I set up a 401(k) and put a good amount of money into it. After leaving that job, it was rolled over into a traditional IRA. I have not contributed anything to it since we have been together.

I also have money in my own bank account. We do have other bank accounts in our own respective names only. I have a safety deposit box that he doesn’t know about. It contains the remains of my jewelry collection and other items of both monetary and sentimental value. We separated once before and, at that time, he took my jewelry. He didn’t give anything back that he took on that occasion, except for my wedding ring.

How do I stop my husband getting this money? Would the courts look at my IRA money and bank accounts more as mine given that my husband never contributed to them? He never saved any money! I have a car loan and a couple of credit cards that are in my name only. I have a car loan and credit-card debt, which are more or less equal to the amount of money in and I set up an IRA. Would one cancel the other out?

Amanda in Florida

Dear Amanda,

Oh, boy. People do crazy things when they’re going through a breakup. Cutting up suits in the closet, emptying joint bank accounts and, yes, raiding safety deposit boxes.

You were married in an equitable distribution state and you now live in another equitable distribution state. That means the court will essentially take into account your financial situations, the length of your marriage and other factors when deciding who gets what — and how much. If you lived in a community property state, all of your marital assets, including the money in your accounts, would automatically be divided 50/50. You have an uphill climb protecting the money in these accounts.

Your husband could file a notice of an adverse claim with your bank and file a restraining order to stop you from accessing your valuables or accounts. The judge, if it were discovered that you were trying to hide your assets, give the whole kit and kaboodle to your husband. There is precedent for such decisions in other states. You have been warned. In the meantime, make an inventory of any jewels your husband allegedly took from your previously, jointly held safety deposit box.

Also see: As a baby boomer, I didn’t grow up with this culture of entitlement — must I really leave my estate to my children or spouse?

In 1996, a California woman won $1.3 million in the lottery and filed for divorce 11 days later. She didn’t tell her husband or anyone else about her windfall, and two years later her husband found out about it (they always do) and sued her. Superior Court Judge Richard Denner ruled that she acted out of fraud or malice and awarded her husband all of her winnings. Had she been honest, they both would have walked away with half.

Recommended: I discovered through Ancestry.com that my biological father is someone else — can I claim an inheritance as his heir?

Your credit-card debt is in your name and yours to pay off. “There are nine states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin — that do things a little differently,” according to Experian. “These states go by community law, which means that any property and debt accrued during a marriage are split between spouses after a divorce. That includes credit-card debt — even credit-card debt that is only in one spouse’s name.”

I have more bad news. You also don’t say how long you were married or whether you are near retirement age, but put this piece of information in your safety deposit box along with your jewels for future reference: On retirement, a person can claim spousal Social Security benefits based on the earnings of an ex-spouse, provided that the couple was married for at least 10 years and the claimant remains unmarried.

All of this works both ways. Is your husband really as financially fickle as you believe? Is his bank account gathering cobwebs? Based on his previous behavior, I suspect not.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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2019-12-11