Conversion of Separate Property to Marital Property: The “Family Use” Doctrine in Mississippi

In most divorces, there is almost always some sort of property dispute–insofar as it relates to classifying marital and separate property for the purpose of property division. Depending on the asset(s) at issue, these disputes can be very complex and taxing on both the courts and parties involved. Over the years, Mississippi courts have adopted or developed tools to help Chancellors decipher what constitutes “marital” property in divorce/property division cases. One of these tools is known as the “family-use” doctrine.

Remember, Mississippi is an equitable distribution state whereby only marital property is subject to property division. Accordingly, a spouse’s ownership or title to certain property is not outcome determinative of each party’s rights to that property in light of a divorce action–there is no presumption of ownership to titled spouses in Mississippi divorces. Pearson v. Pearson, 761 So. 2d 157, 163 (Miss. 2000). Thus, the first step Mississippi courts go through in property division is classifying each spouse’s property to determine what is and is not “marital” property. And this is where the “family-use” doctrine kicks in.

The “family-use” doctrine is a relatively new legal doctrine Mississippi courts have recognized and applied in divorce cases; the Mississippi Court of Appeals first recognized the doctrine in 2001. See Brame v. Brame, 796 So. 2d 970 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001). Under the “family-use” doctrine, otherwise separate, non-marital property may be classified as–or converted to–“marital” property if such property is used for familial benefit during the marriage. This legal doctrine applies to both real and personal property–including real estate, homes, cash in bank accounts, and the like. Rhodes v. Rhodes, 52 So. 3d 430, 437 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (“[I]t is sufficient to say that the family-use doctrine has proper application with respect to real property . . . .”); Pittman v. Pittman, 791 So. 2d 857, 866-67 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (applying the family-use doctrine to furniture, china, silver, and jewelry). So whether the property at issue in a divorce case is a pre-marital home or money in a separate (non-joint) bank account, either can be converted into “marital” property in a divorce case if used for familial benefit.

“Familial benefit” can be seen as a very broad element required to convert separate property into marital property. Though there can be a common-sense understanding associated with the terms, Mississippi courts have not out-right defined what constitutes “familial benefit” nor have the courts defined “how much” benefit must be derived from the property at issue in order to classify it as “marital.” Despite the lack of an express definition of “familial benefit,” through case law, Mississippi courts have set forth a few narrow parameters for the doctrine to apply. For example, more recently, the courts have indicated that to be converted to marital property, separate property must be currently used for some family benefit at the time of divorce; it is not enough that the parties “planned” or intended to use the property for some possible future family benefit. See Renfro v. Renfro, 125 So. 3d 92 (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Thus, there must be a present intent and present use of separate property for some familial benefit in order for the doctrine to apply.

Nevertheless, the most common scenario where the “family-use” doctrine applies is where one spouse purchases or owns a home prior to the marriage and the home is used as the marital residence during the marriage. In these instances, Mississippi courts have consistently held that even a home purchased with separate, non-marital funds by one spouse prior to the marriage may be converted to “marital” property in a divorce. See Clausell v. Clausell, 116 So. 3d 189 (Miss. Ct. App. 2013); see also Wilson v. Wilson, 115 So. 3d 144 (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Courts have justified such conversion where a pre-marital home is used or designated as the marital residence during the marriage, and in many cases, the home in which the spouses’ children were raised. Thus, “it has been observed that the [family-use] doctrine will almost always apply to the family home” or marital residence. Rhodes, 52 So. 3d at 438.

In the end, the “family-use” can play a pivotal role in classifying property in divorce cases. Mississippi courts have consistently applied the doctrine to divorce cases at least since 2001. Parties to a divorce should be aware of this legal tool when contemplating a divorce, and even marriage. Either way, it is always a great idea to seek professional assistance from an attorney when faced with an issue of property classification and division in a divorce. As an experienced Mississippi family and divorce attorney, I have litigated several divorce cases involving property division disputes. So, if you or a friend should need professional assistance in a divorce or property division dispute, please contact the Law Office of M. Devin Whitt for a free consultation at (601) 607-5055.