Establishing Co-Ownership of Material Assets
The first article in this series discussed several ways in which a Foreign Service spouse (or secondary earner) can establish an independent financial identity and ensure joint ownership of financial assets such as savings accounts. It is also important, however, that all spouses establish true joint ownership of all physical assets held by the couple.
Any physical asset of value should have both partners’ names on the title. That’s the major consideration. (Note that you do not have to have an income in order to hold an equal share in a property.) Exactly how this arrangement works depends on a lot of legalese and the laws of the state in which the property is held. The following is a general overview: please consult with a real estate professional or attorney before making or changing your own arrangements.
The most important asset of this type that most of us will ever own is real estate. Normally, if you buy a house together with your spouse, you will be co-owners with “tenancy in entirety.” This type of deed means that each partner has an equal share in the property, and if one partner dies, the other one inherits the entire property. For married owners, “joint tenancy” means essentially the same thing.
“Tenancy in common” is not the usual arrangement for married partners, but it means that each owner has a specific interest in the property, for example 50 percent. When one owner dies, his or her interest does not pass automatically to the surviving partner. It must be determined through the probate process, and can be inherited by anyone who is designated as heir to the property. So, a spouse could potentially run into real problems with this type of ownership; for example, if the deceased’s interest in a property is inherited by an ex-spouse or another relative who may be uncooperative.
If you have any doubt as to the status of your real estate ownership, check the property deed to see if it employs the language appropriate to your situation, and consult with a professional to make any necessary changes.
A vehicle is another high-value item that couples often own together. In order for a vehicle to be shipped overseas by the State Department, the employee’s name must be on the title. I discovered this myself during our last Permanent Change of State (PCS) when we decided to ship my car, instead of my husband’s, to Vienna. We added his name to the title by paying a small fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Alternatively, I could have sold the car to him for a dollar and transferred the title that way. But why would I do that? It was my car, after all.
Aside from principle, there was another reason to keep my name on the title. Typically, embassies overseas will not allow a vehicle to be sold at post unless everyone listed on the title signs off on the sale. If a couple divorces overseas, for example, and the spouse leaves post, the employee cannot sell the car without first getting written permission from the spouse. If the spouse’s name is not on the title, then there is no legal reason the employee cannot sell the vehicle and simply pocket the proceeds. (Ethical reasons are another subject altogether!)
So, if you are going to own a car at post, whether it is shipped from the States, purchased from a dealer such as Diplomatic Sales, or purchased from another individual at post, please ensure that both partners’ names are listed on the title.
Finally, most Foreign Service couples have thousands of pounds of household goods in government storage facilities while they are posted overseas. These goods clearly have a great deal of practical value, and they may have significant sentimental or financial value as well. They are, however, stored only in the employee’s name. A spouse has no legal right to access these goods unless—and this is very important—a signed Joint Property Statement is produced giving the spouse full access to the stored goods.
The Family Liaison Office has emphasized the importance of this document for many years, and recommends that it be a standard part of the packout process. While there are many instances in which such a document could be useful, from evacuations to unaccompanied tours, a sample copy is included in the booklet “Divorce and the Foreign Service” (http://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/2107.pdf). Every spouse should keep a signed copy of this statement just in case. The Travel and Transportation section at the Department of State is also willing to keep a copy on file for reference.
“Divorce and the Foreign Service” includes a lot of other nuts-and-bolts advice regarding property and related matters. It goes beyond the scope of this article, but is well worth a look by any Foreign Service spouse, even a happily married one. An informed spouse is a financially independent spouse, after all.
The next article in this series will cover retirement matters. From pensions to health insurance, long-term Foreign Service spouses are legally entitled to a number of benefits, but we must do our part to ensure that we get them!
Kelly Bembry Midura is AAFSW’s Content Manager. She has been a Foreign Service spouse for over 25 years, with service in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. She blogs at Well, That Was Different (wellthatwasdifferent.com).
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