Classifying the Money
In a divorce, the first step in property division is to determine which assets are subject to division. Most states take the position that property acquired by either spouse before the marriage, as well as most property received as inheritance or gift during the marriage, is deemed "separate property" and not subject to division. All other property, regardless of which spouse holds title, is generally considered marital property and is subject to division.
Sometimes separate property doesn't stay separate, however. If separate property is mixed with marital property so that the source cannot be traced, the court may assume the property in question is marital property. This is known as commingling, and it can easily occur with money. For example, if you received an inheritance during the marriage and deposited it into a joint checking account that you and your spouse both use, you may have difficulty showing what remaining cash is marital and which is separate, so the court will likely consider all the money in the account to be marital property.
Once the court has determined which property is subject to division, the amount of money each spouse receives depends on state law. Some states take the position that both spouses are co-owners in all marital property. In these states, the court generally makes an even 50/50 division of the marital assets between a couple. Other states look at both monetary and non-monetary contributions to the marriage, as well as the needs of the parties, in an effort to reach a fair division. In these states, the resulting division may or may not be equal.
Balancing an Award
Although cash is easy to separate during property division, some assets do not lend themselves to being split. Examples include real estate and other forms of personal property, such as cars, art, or pets. In these situations, money owned by the couple can be very useful in balancing out assets that only one spouse can take. For example, if one spouse takes a car worth $20,000, the other spouse might take an extra $10,000 in cash. Cash may be used to balance out extra marital debts that one spouse takes on.