By DAVID KAMINOW
Valentine’s Day makes most people think of intimate evenings for two. It makes the lawyer in me think of the different legal status of couples as compared to individuals. Romantic, right? Maybe not, but there are important differences under the law between married couples and individuals.
With the District having recognized same-sex marriages and Maryland considering proposed legislation to do the same, the rights of married couples is taking center stage throughout the community. While the legal implications of marriage are many and varied, there is one that is important to anybody who is concerned about losing to litigation what he or she has earned through hard work and effort.
Under the laws of Maryland and the District, married couples, and only married couples, can own property as “tenants by the entireties.” While the finer legal implications and details of owning property as tenants by the entireties can get extremely complicated (my firm recently won a case before D.C.’s highest Court where one of the main issues concerned this form of ownership), the broader picture is clear. With respect to creditors, the married couple owns property together and concurrently. Unique to property owned in this way, the ownership cannot be divided as long as the couple remains married and wants to continue to hold the property as tenants by the entireties. It is based on the legal fiction that a married couple is a single unit, not two individuals (and they say romance is dead in the law).
Why is this important? With other forms of ownership the interest of each party can be separated and the interest of one party liquidated to pay debts. For example, imagine two unmarried people each of whom owns half of a home they live in together. If one is sued and loses, the party who won the lawsuit can often force the sale of the family home and keep half of the proceeds. The other half of the proceeds from the home would then go to the original owner who was not sued.
With tenants by the entireties, this is not so because the interest of the two cannot be divided. If the couple from above were married and owned the house as tenants by the entireties, the family home would be safe from creditors of either of the two. It would only be at risk if both were liable on a debt because then the creditor could take the marital unit’s undivided interest from the marital unit. Thus if one of the owners were sued and lost, the family home would remain with the couple. This is an extremely valuable tool in asset protection and we recommend to many of our married clients that they title their possessions as tenants by the entireties.
Unfortunately, many people do not understand the implications. I have had many clients come to me after they had transferred property that they had owned as tenants by the entireties to one of the two spouses because the other had been sued. Their reasoning was that the property would be safe from the new creditor because the one being sued no longer owned it. However because of the implications of ownership as tenants by the entireties, the property had already been safe. The transfer only raised red flags about fraudulent transfers and actually put the property at greater risk.
Is ownership as tenants by the entireties a silver bullet that will protect all your assets from everybody? No. It will not protect your assets from certain debts, like taxes, or joint debts. And certain property is more difficult than others to protect in this way. In the same-sex marriage community, there are other issues, such as what happens to property held in states that do not recognize same sex marriages. At least one court has ruled that a same-sex couple cannot protect property as tenants by the entireties, even though the couple were lawfully married in a state that did recognize their marriage. Despite these issues, owning property as tenants by the entireties can be a powerful tool in asset protection. Not romantic, but worth thinking about.
David Kaminow is an attorney with Meiselman, Salzer, Inman & Kaminow, P.C., and can be reached at 301-315-9400 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. As with other areas of law, proper asset planning requires a complete analysis of facts and circumstances relevant to each individual’s situation. Nothing in this column should be considered legal advice nor should it be acted upon without obtaining your own legal counsel.