Ending a marriage is never easy. Even when spouses fight constantly and know that divorce is the best option available to them, the actual divorce process is more challenging than most people expect in several ways. While divorcing couples face difficult legal proceedings to resolve child custody and other emotionally taxing issues, one of the most contentious issues for any divorce is the property division process.

As you prepare for your divorce in Columbia, MO, it’s vital to understand what the property division process entails, how to prepare for it, and the best ways to preserve your financial interests following your divorce. Missouri follows the equitable distribution rule for property division, and many people misinterpret and misunderstand this rule. An experienced Columbia, MO, divorce lawyer can provide guidance for the specific issues you face in your divorce, but it’s a good idea to have a general understanding of how the equitable distribution law works and how it is likely to affect your case.

What Is Equitable Distribution?

When many people hear the term “equitable distribution,” they conflate “equitable” with “equal.” Under the equitable distribution standard, divorcing spouses must determine the fairest possible division of their marital assets. However, this does not necessarily mean that their property division outcome will be entirely equal. Regardless of how the couple decides to handle their divorce, they must account for numerous details to reach the fairest possible division of their marital assets.

When judges settle a divorce case, they must evaluate multiple financial details for both spouses to determine the fairest possible division of their marital assets. They must review:

  • The income of each spouse.
  • The age, medical status, and overall health of each spouse.
  • Each spouse’s ability to earn income and support themselves.
  • Any prior family court obligations for either spouse, such as a child support order from a previous relationship.
  • Each spouse’s contributions toward the marriage, including maintaining the household and paying bills.
  • Each spouses’ contributions toward one another’s careers and education. For example, some people help pay for their spouses’ college tuition.
  • The behavior of each of the spouses during the marriage, particularly involving financial habits.

Judges must also consider these and other factors when deciding on child support and long-term financial arrangements for spousal support.

What Is Separate Property?

Missouri’s equitable distribution law makes clear distinctions between “marital” property subject to division and “separate” property that remains the sole property of the spouse who owns it. Marital property is typically anything gained during the marriage, such as income earned by spouses and any jointly owned assets. Separate property often includes gifts a spouse received, inheritance from parents and other family members, and anything owned before marriage.

It’s important to note that some separate property may become marital property under certain circumstances. For example, if you owned a home before marriage but later refinanced your home and added your spouse’s name to the deed, the home would then qualify as marital property. If you have any concerns about what qualifies as marital or separate property in your upcoming divorce, it’s essential to consult an attorney as soon as possible.

Prenuptial Contracts and Property Division

Some couples develop prenuptial agreements before marriage to protect one another from separately held debts, outline financial responsibilities for the marriage, and provide financial security for both spouses. These contracts can also serve as guides for divorce when they include postnuptial provisions. However, a prenuptial contract can only influence property division if legally enforceable. The court must formally review the contract, and if there are any illegal, unconscionable, or unenforceable terms, the contract will likely be nullified.

Can I Privately Negotiate Property Division in Divorce?

When most people think of divorce, they imagine a protracted court battle that ultimately results in a final decision from a judge. Unfortunately, when couples litigate their divorces, the judges handling their cases have the final say on every aspect of the cases at hand. This can be incredibly disempowering for some divorcing couples, and many divorcing couples throughout Missouri are opting for alternative dispute resolution to avoid this issue.

In alternative dispute resolution, divorcing spouses privately negotiate mutually agreeable divorce terms. Collaborative divorce and mediation are the most commonly used alternative dispute resolution methods for divorce in Missouri. While couples cannot resolve all of their divorce-related issues through private settlement, they can reach much more agreeable results than a judge would likely deliver in many cases.

Couples can utilize greater flexibility in property division determinations through alternative dispute resolution. For example, if your situation would typically dictate that alimony is suitable due to the income difference between you and your spouse, you may be able to negotiate a larger share of marital property instead of alimony, preventing the need for an ongoing financial arrangement between you and your spouse. While this option may be possible at a judge’s discretion in litigation, it is far easier to customize your property division terms when choosing alternative dispute resolution.

The Importance of Financial Disclosure

One of the most important aspects of any divorce is the financial disclosure process. Regardless of your net worth or how many assets you and your spouse control, it is crucial that you are complete, accurate, and honest in your financial disclosure statement. If you attempt to hide assets or obfuscate your financial status in your divorce case, you can expect to face severe repercussions. Contempt of court is likely, and you may be liable for your spouse’s legal fees if you attempt this. It’s also possible to face criminal charges for fraud and other financial crimes depending on the scope of your activities.

Ultimately, property division can be a hotly contested issue in any divorce, and it can be challenging to determine the best approach to this situation. If you have difficult financial questions and are uncertain about the potential outcome of property division in your divorce, it’s vital to consult an experienced Columbia, MO, divorce lawyer to discuss your concerns.