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The Moneyist: ‘It’s still painful’: My wife of just one year left me, took all her belongings and won’t answer her phone. How do I protect my finances?

Dear Quentin,

I’ve been married for about a year. I bought my home before we were married. Two weeks ago, I came home to an empty house. My wife left me, and took all her belongings. It’s still painful and I feel as if I’m grieving. She hasn’t said anything and won’t answer her phone. What should I do? How do I protect myself?

Husband in Texas

Dear Husband,

I’m sorry this happened, and for the way it happened. It’s a shock to the system, and I’m not surprised that you feel like you are grieving. Contact mutual friends and family to make sure she is OK, and to ensure there was no foul play or that she is having some kind of a mental-health crisis. You don’t say anything about your marriage, or what may have led to her departure. “Fight or flight” is a primal response for how some people deal with stress and/or other dangers.

In the meantime, contact a divorce attorney. Your attorney will likely advise you to file for a formal separation agreement and, depending on what happens with your wife, file for divorce. Rules vary by state, but your lawyer may ask you to consider withdrawing half of your money from your joint accounts, cancel jointly held credit cards, change your will and your power of attorney, and any accounts on which your estranged wife is listed as a beneficiary. 

Gather all bank statements, and financial documents, and make notes of any strange or unusual withdrawals. This will all come in useful during divorce proceedings. Many states have “no fault” divorces, but Texas is one state that does have “fault” divorces. Causes of a “fault” divorce include abandonment for one year or more — which is what appears to have happened here — mental or physical or mental cruelty, infidelity, felony conviction, and/or mental incapacitation. 

“It is common for many couples to engage in mediation,” according to the Larson Law Office in Houston. “During mediation, a neutral third party will try to help you and your spouse to figure out terms to which you both agree. Mediation can help both spouses come out of the divorce feeling satisfied, which can help you to have an amicable relationship in the future. Staying on civil terms with your former spouse is often beneficial to any children of the marriage.”

Texas is a community-property state and, as such, property acquired during the marriage is regarded as community/marital property, while property acquired before the marriage — your house, for example — is treated as separate property. “In Texas, the state would generally view that home as your separate property,” according to Sisemore Law Firm in Fort Worth. But it can get complicated if you invest marital funds in the property, and commingle that asset.

Dividing assets as a married couple can get tricky. As a rule, Sisemore Law Firm does not advise unmarried couples to buy a house together: “By doing so you create an undivided separate property interest in the home for each party,” the company says. “That means both parties have the right to use and enjoy the home and can do whatever they want there. Should the couple decide to divorce, they must go to civil district court to divide the property.”

Assuming that your wife chose to leave of her own free will, and is not dealing with a mental-health crisis, there are some things you can do in her absence. You could try reaching out — perhaps through her family — and suggest a marriage counselor at least to figure out what has happened, and to give some clarity on the path forward. You asked for help here. That takes courage. You can also ask family and friends for support too. 

Follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com.

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

‘We can practically finish each other’s sentences’: I’m getting married in 2023. I want a prenup. She wants to merge our finances. What’s my next move?

‘I want to meet someone rich. Is that so wrong?’ I’m 46, earn $210,000, and own a $700,000 home. I’m tired of dating ‘losers.’

‘I want to thrive’: I’m 29, work part-time, and left a 15-year abusive relationship. How do I get back on my feet financially?

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