A divorcing couple is always free to come to agreement on how to divide personal property owned during the marriage. In Massachusetts, when no agreement can be reached, a judge will first classify the personal property as either marital property or separate property. Massachusetts is an equitable distribution state, so the court will divide these assets between the parties on the basis of fairness.
The Marital Estate
The property subject to division in a divorce is referred to as the marital estate and typically covers all assets acquired during the marriage regardless of how title is held. For example, if you purchased a motorcycle for yourself during the marriage, it will not be exempt from the marital estate simply because you're named as sole owner on the title. However, personal property acquired before the marriage, or by gift or specific inheritance during the marriage, is generally not part of the marital estate. So, if the motorcycle passed to you through a will, it would be considered separate property and not subject to division.
Certain actions during the marriage affecting personal property can change the classification of these assets during a divorce. Personal property that would otherwise not be part of the marital estate can become marital property through a process known as commingling. Commingling refers to the mixing of marital and separate property so that the source of the property cannot be determined. This issue typically arises with cash, particularly if the parties do not maintain separate bank accounts. If a cash gift was made directly to you, and you deposited it into a joint account with your spouse, a court may not be able to trace the source of that money and it would be subject to division as part of the marital estate.
During a divorce proceeding in Massachusetts, either spouse may request alimony. Alimony awards are meant to ensure the same standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. When deciding whether to grant alimony, the court will take into account several factors, including the conduct of the parties; the length of the marriage; and the monetary and non-monetary contributions to the marriage, such as services as a homemaker. In Massachusetts, judges are not limited to any specific form the alimony award must take; it can be cash payments, personal property, or even a portion of your retirement benefits in lieu of a monthly support obligation.
Some couples enter into prenuptial agreements to control the distribution of personal property in the event of divorce. Prenups, as they are called, are valid in Massachusetts so long as they are not excessively one-sided to the point where one of the spouses is essentially left with nothing. These agreements can be a useful planning tool if you expect to acquire assets during the marriage that you want to shield from division in the event of a divorce.