The Moneyist: ‘I filed for divorce from my deadbeat, soon-to-be ex-wife’: She never paid the mortgage. How can I keep sole ownership of my home?

United States

Dear Quentin,

I’ve been married for over 10 years and we have no children together. I filed for divorce from my deadbeat, soon-to-be ex-wife. 

She worked full-time for the city of Philadelphia for almost 20 years, and began claiming disability after we got married. 

I alone purchased my house and spent $ 20,000 remodeling it, all except for $ 1,000. I made every mortgage payment from day one, and all the bills are in my name.

‘These laws must be changed. What can I do?’

She is a homeowner. She inherited a home from her father before we were married, but she is co-owner of that property with her son.

My home is worth $ 280,000 and I purchased it for $ 114,000. We have been separated for three years and she wants half of the property.

How can I fight to not hand over half when I paid for my home, and made all the payments? Can the Superior Court of Philadelphia help me? 

These laws must be changed. What can I do? 

Victim of Unfair Laws

Dear Victim,

Like many divorcing couples, I’m sorry you find yourself in this predicament. Going through a divorce is like going through a Great Recession. It takes a massive financial and emotional toll on all parties, and some more than others.

Anything you buy during your marriage — including a house — is usually regarded as marital property in Pennsylvania, even if it’s only titled in your name. Gifts and inheritance, and assets listed in a pre-nuptial agreement as separate, are non-marital property. 

Before getting married, it’s important to discuss financial goals, responsibilities and ownership of assets. Pennsylvania, as you probably know, is an equitable distribution state, meaning that assets are divided fairly, if not always evenly.

“If a spouse chooses to use non-marital funds for a common purchase, like buying a home, that money will often be considered marital property,” according to Petrelli Previtera, a law firm with offices across the country, including in Philadelphia. 

Some states have special protections, preventing homes against commingling. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

If a non-marital asset rise in value during marriage, that increase may be considered community property. “You may be able to trade other assets or come to an agreement if you want to keep your pension or retirement intact,” it adds.

“If you acquired any part of your pension, 401(k) plan, stock plan, stock options, deferred compensation and other retirement incentives during the marriage, that portion is marital property,” per Petrelli Previtera’s online guidance.

Some states have special protections, preventing homes against commingling. In Pennsylvania, however, using marital funds for property prior to your marriage can commingle that property, even if you contributed most of the funds.

I don’t hold out much hope for your case changing the law in Pennsylvania. Your divorce lawyer will advise you on your options, and what is possible given when you purchased your house, and the origin of the funds used to improve the home.

Whether or not there is legitimate reason for your wife being on disability benefits, consider reframing your image of her as a “deadbeat.” It will only keep your resentments fresh long after the ink on your divorce papers has dried.

The whole reason behind getting divorced, and separating your finances is to leave that part of your life behind. You will have to make peace with whatever the judge in your case decides. The best thing you can do for yourself is accept it.

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