Cross Border Views on Inherited Wealth

Divorce of expatriate couples in Hong Kong
Dec 27, 2019

This article looks at how inherited funds are treated from a cross-border perspective. To the surprise of many, inherited wealth in a divorce may be treated differently depending on the jurisdiction in which you file for divorce. Location is therefore an important factor to consider when divorcing. To unpack this topic, let’s explore and contrast how inherited wealth is treated in Hong Kong vs. the United States of America, in particular the community property state California.

1. Inheritance in Divorce in California: California, like many other states, is a community property state. This means that in a divorce, all property acquired during the marriage is divided equally between the divorcing parties. An exception to this rule occurs when an individual receives an inheritance during the course of the marriage. In those circumstances, under California law, an inheritance is separate property and therefore will be excluded from the division of assets and debts in a family estate (Family Code Section 770).

It is important to note that when an individual receives an inheritance, the monies received must be traceable to the source so there is no confusion as to whether the money is separate property or community property. That is why it is always a good idea to open a separate bank account and deposit inheritance monies into this separate account to identify them and keep them separate. Otherwise, by depositing inheritance funds in a joint community bank account, you are commingling funds. When monies become commingled, it can become very difficult to trace monies back to the separate property source and your former spouse may have an argument that all inherited funds were already spent during the marriage and therefore all remaining funds in the joint account are community property and must be split equally. When in doubt, always keep clean records of any inherited funds and keep records of how these monies have been spent. If you don’t keep track, a tracing expert may be enlisted but tracing can become quite expensive and time-consuming thereby stalling the divorce.

2. Gifts Are Separate Property in Divorce in California: Another exception occurs when an individual receives a gift. For example, if you receive a beautiful piece of jewelry from your spouse for an anniversary or birthday, this gift is generally excluded from the division of assets and debts in a family estate. If, however, the gift could be considered of substantial value, the courts will then look at the asset more carefully and it may be subject to division taking into account the parties’ wealth and finances.

If the asset is determined to be of substantial value, it is community property and must be divided between the parties – unless of course, either party can present a written transmutation agreement changing the character of this asset from community to separate.

3. Inherited Wealth in Divorce in Hong Kong: Over the years, there has been much debate over how inherited funds should be treated in a divorce in Hong Kong and whether these funds should be excluded from division. In Hong Kong, inherited wealth are those assets that come from a source wholly external to a marriage. Like Great Britain, the courts in Hong Kong have regard to the “yardstick of equality” as a starting point, meaning the goal is to divide the asset pool fairly. Courts in Hong Kong may however, veer from this principle and make adjustments, thereby dividing assets “unequally” if after reviewing certain statutory factors, taking into account the whole of the asset pool, reasonable needs, compensation and applying the “sharing principle” if assets exceeds the needs, in addition to the specific circumstances surrounding the divorce, and finds that an individual’s inheritance could be a resource to fulfill and satisfy an individual’s reasonable needs and the needs of the children post-divorce (See the Hong Kong landmark case titled DD v LKW (2010) 13 HKCFAR 537.) As a result, the Court may heed to flexibility in order to find a suitable answer to the circumstances of each case whereby the objective is to reach a just result that is fair for both parties. Thus, unlike California, inheritance funds received by an individual in Hong Kong may be taken into account because it forms part of the asset pool that is a financial resource to one or both of the parties. Stephen J. Peaker, head of the Family Law Department at Oldham, Li & Nie (OLN) and a fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers (IAFL) says: “The issue of inherited wealth is becoming more and more prevalent in Hong Kong, both in contested and uncontested cases. The economic success of Hong Kong and the natural passage of time combined have created substantial inherited wealth. One of the key areas of dispute on succession is in relation to family businesses, often with enormous value where one party inherits a business interest. This business can be valued as part of an asset pool and unsurprisingly, this is viewed by the creators of the wealth as inherently unreasonable and has led to the proliferation of generational trusts and the increase in prenuptial agreements.”

It is interesting to note that in Hong Kong, the Court may consider an inheritance even if it has not yet been received, but provided an individual is set to receive an inheritance in the near future or has a perceived resource. Additionally, if you’re involved in a short-term marriage and there are inheritance funds in the asset pool, the courts may not consider the inheritance in the asset division yet if it is a long-term marriage, the courts may include inherited funds, unless these funds were kept entirely separate.

It is important to understand and become knowledgeable of the specific laws of your jurisdiction. Speak with a professional about how to protect your inheritance and what can be done to avoid any issues when dividing assets in your divorce. If you’re getting married, you may want to speak with a family law professional to discuss a prenuptial agreement and ways to avoid any issues in the event of a divorce. Being well prepared will help avoid any heartache in the future!

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