It’s difficult to think of a scenario in which withholding money from a spouse is ever a good idea, much less a legal activity. Setting aside the judiciousness of that decision, however, Austin, Texas-based attorney Michael Murray notes that if the husband has access to his wife’s money and withholds it, or the funds are owned by both spouses, the wife -- or her attorney or other agent -- certainly could sue her husband for that action.
Community Property and Jointly Owned Funds
Each state determines what is community property -- owned by both spouses -- and what is separate property. In some states, everything acquired and earned during the marriage is deemed to be the property of both. As of the time of this publication, there were nine community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Even in non-community property states, however, commingled funds -- such as each spouse’s paycheck deposited in a joint bank account and used to pay household bills -- may be considered jointly owned. If one spouse prevents the other from accessing these funds, the other spouse can sue. Murray notes, however, that these lawsuits are typically known as divorces. “If one spouse files suit against the other spouse, they normally do not stay married,” Murray says.
Separately Owned Funds
If the husband is withholding money that is solely his, there is nothing illegal about his action. In all states, community property or not, some money can be considered separate property, even in marriage. This includes money either spouse earned before the marriage or an inheritance from a deceased relative, for example. Also, if the couple separates, any money each earns -- as defined by the law in your state -- during the separation is typically considered separately owned money. If you give your spouse any money in writing, that, too, is considered to be her separate property, so you cannot later deny her access to those funds. If separate money is mixed with community property, the only way to clarify it is if you keep payment receipts or other meticulous financial records.
Unmuddying Financial Waters
One simple way to protect each spouse’s money is to keep separate bank accounts. You can divvy up household bills according to your agreed-upon formula, such as the spouse who earns the most paying the biggest bills. You can also deposit your wages or other funds in separate accounts, but then also have a joint account in which each of you deposits a percentage of your money for some or all of the household expenses. This way, you both have access to a commingled joint account while still retaining exclusive access to your individual accounts.
The Separation Scenario
If you and your spouse have separated, you can avoid potential financial complications -- and legal costs -- by opening and maintaining individual accounts as soon as you separate. The faster you resolve the separation, whether through divorce or reconciliation, the fewer complications you’ll have. Even if each spouse acts honorably with finances during this period, other life changes, such as job changes or a new love interest, can create financial strife quickly.
- W. Michael Murray; Attorney at Law; Murray & Associates; Austin, Texas
- Legalzoom Divorce Education Center: Divorce -- Community Property
- Forbes: Putting Off Divorce? Ten Ways Long-Term Separation Can Do Women More Harm Than Good
- Fairmark Press: Relief From Spousal Liability -- Community Property States
- Fox Business: Couple’s Therapy? Keep Separate Bank Accounts
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