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Is it Legal to Remove Items from the Marital Home Before Divorce?

removing marital property before divorce

When a South Carolina couple decides to end their marriage, one of the most complex and contentious issues they face is the division of marital property. Whether negotiating settlements outside of court or battling within South Carolina’s family court system, spouses must legally account for and equitably split all assets acquired during the marriage. This rule applies to financial accounts, real estate holdings, business interests, personal property, and more.

However, one spouse prematurely withdrawing or hiding marital property without the other’s consent complicates this asset division process. Some spouses falsely assume that they have free rein to shield or remove joint money and property once separation or divorce plans emerge.

But in reality, South Carolina statutory and case law takes a strict view of such financial maneuvering between spouses at the end of a marriage. Judges expect full disclosure and fair distribution of all marital property, regardless of which spouse currently possesses or controls the assets.

When Spouses Can and Cannot Remove Marital Assets During Divorce

South Carolina is an “equitable division” state when handling community property division during the divorce process. This rule means that all assets and debts accrued during the marriage are subject to equitable (fair), but not necessarily equal, distribution between the spouses.

This division method includes the following:

  • Real estate purchased or invested in jointly during the marriage
  • Financial accounts like bank, investment, and retirement accounts
  • Businesses created or appreciated during the marriage
  • Vehicles, jewelry, art, or other valuable personal property
  • Proceeds from personal injury or workers’ compensation settlements

The law presumes that both spouses contributed to and benefited from such “marital property” somehow. Therefore, a single spouse cannot claim sole ownership of such marital assets. South Carolina spouses have no legal right to withdraw, remove, or redirect marital assets once divorce proceedings or decisions emerge. Doing so prejudices the other spouse’s legal rights to equitable distribution per state statutes.

However, “separate” or “non-marital” property introduced into the marriage by one spouse is generally not subject to division.

For example, assets acquired:

  • Through gift or inheritance during the marriage apply only to the recipient’s spouse
  • Before the marriage remain that spouse’s separate property remains

Without a court order, spouses should not redirect marital assets between the decision date and the final divorce decree. Our South Carolina divorce lawyers always urge clients to maintain the financial status quo regarding marital property until the courts finalize settlements. Otherwise, family court judges view unilateral withdrawals and spousal property transfers unfavorably.

Ramifications for Withdrawing Assets Prematurely in South Carolina

Family court judges expect all marital property, including financial accounts, to remain intact and equally accessible to either party pre-divorce. The court may impose stiff penalties upon discovery when one spouse inappropriately removes or conceals marital assets without consent.

Typical family court reactions include:

  • Ordering the spouse to return or account for missing marital property assets
  • Awarding extra income to compensate for hidden money
  • Awarding compensatory assets to offset losses
  • Assigning a higher percentage of remaining assets to the prejudiced spouse
  • Holding the offending spouse in contempt of court

At a minimum, such financial maneuvers almost guarantee contentious, prolonged divorce negotiations costing far more legal fees. It deeply erodes trust in settlement talks and pushes more issues into litigation versus mediation. The family court views marriage as a financial partnership up to the final divorce decree. Prejudicing a spouse’s rights often leads the judge to act punitively.

Strategies to Secure Marital Property from Removal

If you are concerned about the fair division of marital property during a separation, there are some prudent steps to take while still respecting the rights of both spouses:

  1. Document and photograph all valuable marital property for future discussions
  2. Consider opening individual bank accounts to manage finances separately. Joint accounts can still be used to pay shared expenses
  3. Use a safe deposit box and safety precautions for important documents, but do not restrict access from your spouse
  4. Continue paying all housing expenses from joint marital assets if residing in the marital home
  5. Ask for clear paper trails for any significant expenditures or property transfers

The most ethical approach is to address property division through open and honest divorce mediation or the court. Unilateral action to hide, move, or limit access to marital property can complicate proceedings and goodwill.

When is it Considered Marital Waste? Assessing Fraudulent Property Transfers in SC Divorces

State statutes allow flexibility regarding how spouses manage marital property during an intact marriage. However, the timing and context behind certain transactions determine their legitimacy versus efforts to shelter assets pre-divorce.

Family law attorneys watch for questionable activity like:

  • Sudden retitling of assets solely into one spouse’s name
  • Hastily liquidating and moving money into private accounts
  • Quitclaim transferring real estate ownership to relatives or others
  • Cashing out and shifting investments to elude tracing
  • Titling noteworthy purchases like cars solely in one spouse’s name
  • Charging excessively beyond standard spending patterns.

South Carolina family court judges expect complete transparency regarding marital property division. Purposefully concealing, misrepresenting, or diverting assets to shield them from settlement violates rules of good faith and fair dealing underlying divorce financial resolutions.

Our Attorneys Can Help You Seek Equitable Distributions During the Divorce Process

Our divorce attorneys have seen many regrettable cases where a spouse may have improperly removed or hidden marital assets out of anger, spite, or incorrect assumptions.

However, state law protects against unwarranted dissipation of property that rightfully belongs to you. At Steele Family Law, we go to work shielding your rights to fair division of all marital property after deciding to divorce.

We handle asserting claims to conceal assets, contesting fraudulent transfers, disputing altered account titling, and more. You can achieve an equitable settlement with seasoned guidance amid financial misconduct during separation.

Contact our South Carolina divorce attorneys today to discuss asset protection strategies suitable for your situation.

Author Bio

Greg Steele is CEO and Managing Partner of Steele Family Law, a South Carolina estate planning and family law firm. With years of experience in practicing law, he has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including divorce, child custody and support, estate planning, probate, and other legal cases.

Greg received his Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia and is a member of the South Carolina Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named among Anderson’s Top 20 Under 40 in 2022.

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