Six years before the parties’ marriage in June 2000, the wife became the sole owner of real property, which would later become the parties’ marital residence. At the time of marriage, the wife owned the property free and clear of any liens or encumbrances. In 2005, apparently in an effort to consolidate debt, the husband and the wife jointly applied for a mortgage on the property (based upon her limited income, the wife was unable to qualify for a mortgage on her own). To satisfy the requirements of the mortgage lender, the wife executed a deed conveying ownership of the residence from her alone to both her and the husband and the mortgage was issued jointly to the parties that same day.
In December 2011, the wife commenced this action for divorce. The parties resolved all issues except the distribution of the marital residence and the debt attached thereto, which had amounted to approximately $160,000. Following a trial, Supreme Court Justice Gerald William Connolly issued a decision finding, among other things, that the marital residence and its accompanying debt should be equally divided between the parties. No credit for any separate property contribution was given.
The Appellate Division, Third Department, in its July, 2014 decision in Myers v. Myers, affirmed.
The wife acknowledged that the residence had become marital property when she deeded it to herself and her husband. The wife contended that it was error to deny her a separate property origination credit in the amount of $165,000 for the estimated value of the marital residence at the time she did so.
The Third Department held that to the extent that a prior decision of the Third Department in Campfield v. Campfield (95 A.D.3d 1429, 944 N.Y.S.2d 339 , lv. denied 21 N.Y.3d 857, 969 N.Y.S.2d 443 ), may be read to limit a court’s discretion to award a separate property credit to a spouse, like the wife, who transmutes separate property into marital property without changing the nature of the property itself, it should no longer be followed.
The appellate court noted that credits are often given for the value of the former separate property. The decision to award a separate property origination credit in such a situation is a determination left to the sound discretion of the trial court. A court is not precluded as a matter of law from giving a credit when separate property has been transmuted into marital property.
Nonetheless, the appellate court was unpersuaded that the denial of the wife’s request for a separate property origination credit under the specific circumstances herein constituted an abuse of discretion. Justice Connolly had found “the overall picture is of the parties engaging generally in a financial partnership, of which the marital residence, and the loans thereupon, was simply one agreed-upon portion.”
The funds received from the mortgage, as well as the subsequent refinancing and home equity loan, enabled the wife and the husband to consolidate their debts, go on numerous family vacations, make improvements to the marital residence and, generally, live a lifestyle that may have been above their means. Notably, the wife’s individual debt was eliminated by the proceeds of a new, jointly-held debt which, in turn, was primarily paid from the husband’s income for a number of years.
Inasmuch as a separate property origination credit “is not strictly mandated since the property is no longer separate, but is part of the total marital property,” the Third Department could not say that Justice Connolly improperly denied the wife a credit.
Comment: This is not a rare scenario, particularly with second marriages. Rather than leaving such matters to the discretion of a trial judge, dealing with assets brought into marriage is properly the subject of a prenuptial agreement, or a post-nuptial agreement entered at the time the “separate” asset is “transmuted.” At that time the parties would have been independently counseled to consider the effect of using the mortgage proceeds for various purposes and paying the mortgage debt.