Dear Penny: Is My Wife Lying About Her $100K Inheritance?

A woman hides money underneath sweaters in her home.
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Dear Penny,

When my mother-in-law passed away, my wife received $100,000, which she deposited in a credit union under her name. She refused to put the money into a bank joint account. 

My wife claims that the will stipulated that she do that in case of divorce. We have been having marital issues lately. I have not seen a copy of the will. Please advise.


Dear T.,

Wills become part of the public record once they’re filed in probate court. You, along with any other member of the public, could get a copy of your mother-in-law’s will by contacting the clerk of the court in the county where her estate was probated.

That said, it probably doesn’t matter much for your purposes what your mother-in-law’s will states. As long as your mother-in-law left the money solely to your wife and not to both of you, that money belongs to your wife. She’s allowed to keep it in a separate account, even if the will didn’t stipulate that she do so.

Most assets acquired during a marriage are considered marital property, which means they belong to both spouses. If a couple divorces, the rules for splitting marital property depend on the state. Forty-one states use equitable distribution rules, where a court will attempt to divvy up that property “equitably,” i.e., fairly, but not always equally. The other nine states are community property states, where marital property is typically split 50/50.

But inheritances are treated as separate property, regardless of whether you live in an equitable distribution or community property state. They belong solely to the spouse who received the inheritance. That’s why it probably doesn’t matter if your mother-in-law’s will instructed your wife to keep the money in a separate account. If she was the sole beneficiary of that $100,000, she can do what she wants with that money. You wouldn’t get part of that money in a divorce.

I get that this isn’t the answer you want to hear. But try putting yourself in your wife’s shoes. Had she asked me how to handle her inheritance, I’d tell her to do exactly what she’s doing, even if her mother’s will didn’t stipulate that she do so.

There’s a big risk in giving your spouse access to an inheritance when your marriage is on rocky turf. Once you co-mingle inheritance money by putting it in a joint account, the lines between separate property and marital property get fuzzy. In divorce court, inheritance money that’s deposited into a joint account is often treated as marital property and gets split between spouses. Plus, with a joint account, either owner can withdraw the entire balance at any time.

If you received a $100,000 inheritance tomorrow, would you protect the money by keeping it in your own account? Or would you deposit it in a joint account, knowing you could lose a substantial chunk of it if you divorce?

Of course, there’s a separate issue, which is whether your wife is being honest about her reasons for keeping the money off-limits to you. If that’s a major concern, perhaps it does make sense to obtain a copy of the will. I’d caution against confronting your wife if what you find contradicts what she’s told you. A conversation that starts with “look what I found at the courthouse” probably won’t end well. Instead, you can use what you find to assess whether you and your wife are communicating openly with each other.

Even when a marriage isn’t on the rocks, it isn’t unusual for a spouse who inherits money to keep it separate from other assets. If you want to save your marriage, focus on whatever issues you’re dealing with instead of this inheritance. That money isn’t yours. Whether your wife is following her mom’s orders or her own gut, she’s not being unreasonable by maintaining control of her inheritance.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].