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The Moneyist: My husband added my mother-in-law to the deed of our house 20 years ago. Now we’re getting divorced, and she wants one-third. Can I fight this?

Dear Quentin,

My husband and I own a house. At escrow, he added his mom to the title, and said that he would remove her in a few years. Now almost 20 years later, her name is still on the title. She never made any payments or lived in the house. She agreed this house does not belong to her. We’re getting a divorce currently and his mom is claiming one-third of the house equity. 

Would I be able to fight for this to get my half? 

Thank you so much for your time.

Soon-to-be ex-wife

“It’s a dastardly move to make when getting married and buying a family home, but it’s hardly a surprise your mother-in-law is now making clear she (they) want their share.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Soon,

Few people do anything by accident. Your husband, I believe, is no exception.

Your husband added his mother to the deed of your home when you married, I’m guessing, as an insurance policy to ensure he would receive two-thirds of the value of your home should you divorce. It’s a dastardly move to make when getting married and buying a family home, but it’s hardly a surprise your mother-in-law is now making clear she (they) want their share.

This question raises several legal issues involving family law and real estate issues,” says Matheu Nunn, a divorce lawyer and partner at Einhorn Barbarito in Denville, N.J.First and foremost, your mother-in-law has a legal interest in the home.” So, if she is not already a party to your divorce case by her own motion, she should be called as a third party.

You face an uphill battle to prove your mother-in-law does not have a right to one-third, but you could persuade a divorce court to give you a larger percentage of your husband’s share. “You may be made ‘whole’ through your husband’s interest in the home,” he adds. “That is, family courts divide property based on principles of equity and fairness.”

If a judge concluded that you relied on your husband’s promise to remove his mother; that his mother acknowledged she did not have a right to the home; and his mother never made any payments or resided in the home — even if they are now singing a different “tune” — a judge could award you one-third of the equity based on your legal ownership, Nunn adds.

The judge could, in theory, award one-third to your mother-in-law and a 50% total equity interest from your husband’s share. “In other words, the judge’s award could essentially divest your husband of some of his equity to make you whole,” he says. “This is a complicated litigation that would require decades-old evidence, multiple parties, and likely a hearing.”

In other words, your mother-in-law’s share would be secure and she could, I suppose, leave that share to her son upon her death. If a judge decided that this home was not dealt with fairly or equitably by your husband, he could still walk away with 50%, or thereabouts. Although the judge could — in theory — also penalize your husband for his actions. 

The takeaway for everyone else? If a financial transaction makes no sense, say no. 

More from Quentin Fottrell:

I don’t want to leave my financially irresponsible daughter my house. Is that unreasonable?

My father has dementia and ‘forgave’ my brother’s $200,000 house loan. The nursing-home notary said he was of sound mind. What can we do?

Is it OK for my new boyfriend to ask me to split the bill? ‘I don’t want him to get used to me paying for my own meals.’

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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