During the course of a marriage, you may inherit property or money. Your spouse may believe that, because she is married to you, she has a right to whatever inheritance you get. This isn't usually the case, although you may not be able to protect your inheritance from a spouse completely. If you want to ensure your wife gets whatever you've inherited, you may need to take legal steps to transfer ownership.
Separate and Community Property States
Property laws vary by state. In a handful of states, the government considers you and your spouse to be one financial unit; these are community property states. In community property states, spouses often have a claim to whatever assets their spouses acquire during the marriage. Just the opposite is true in separate property states. The differences in property laws is what causes some confusion about whether a husband or wife has a legal claim to inherited assets.
Typically, regardless of whether you are in a separate or community property state, your spouse does not have a legal claim to anything you inherit or receive as a gift, according to Nolo. The primary reason is that eliminating spousal claim to inheritance guarantees that the inheritance will go to the person truly intended to receive it in accordance with probate law and will stipulations.
Even though a spouse generally doesn't have a claim to your inheritance, there are instances in which a claim does become possible. Your spouse may have a claim to inherited property if you willingly complete a quit claim form and put her name on the deed. Additionally, you may have to give your spouse some or all of the inheritance if he files a lawsuit against you and wins a judgment. If you die without a will, the inheritance may get wrapped up in your estate, in which case your spouse may have some claim to it, depending on the probate regulations for your jurisdiction.
Inheritances generally are protected from your spouse by law, unless you willingly transfer ownership of the inheritance, are sued and lose your case or pass away intestate. If the inheritance is money, it's a good idea to keep the funds in a non-joint account so that it is clear who owns the funds and your spouse cannot access the funds without authorization from you. If the inheritance is property, do not add your spouse's name to the title unless you want to give her claim. You should draw up a will that indicates exactly what should happen to the inheritance if you pass away; this may require consultation with an attorney, as probate regulations don't always let you disinherit a spouse.
Wanda Thibodeaux is a freelance writer and editor based in Eagan, Minn. She has been published in both print and Web publications and has written on everything from fly fishing to parenting. She currently works through her business website, Takingdictation.com, which functions globally and welcomes new clients.