Relationships can be complicated waters to navigate at the best of times, but it can become even trickier when thought needs to be given to relationship property matters.

One such thorny issue is when one person receives an inheritance or other significant gift from a third party. For a variety of reasons, it may be important for that inheritance to be kept separate from other property of the relationship. This article focuses on the complications of keeping it separate.


Relationship property and intermingling

In most cases, after three years in a relationship, all property acquired during that relationship will be classed as relationship property to be divided equally between the couple if their relationship ends (either by separation or death).

Property that each person owned before the relationship is separate property and does not get divided with the other person. Inheritances or other gifts received during the relationship are, in most situations, also separate property and are not divided.

Separate property can, however, become relationship property in a variety of ways during the relationship. In the case of an inheritance, this happens when that property is ‘intermingled’ with other relationship property with the express or implied consent of the owner. The law says that the intermingling needs to have had the effect of making it too difficult or impractical to continue to identify the portion of separate property.


How this can happen

The most common example of intermingling occurs when money is inherited. If the money is deposited into a joint or other relationship bank account and other money is going in and out of that account, it can be very difficult to identify what part of the funds left in that account are still inheritance funds.

Another example is when inheritance funds are used to buy assets for family use or pay relationship debts.

In both examples, the inheritance could well be regarded to have been intermingled with the express or implied consent of the inheritance recipient. The inheritance would become relationship property.

Another common issue is when a party intends to keep an inheritance separate by putting it into a separate account (in their own name) but also uses that account to receive money that would be classed as relationship property, such as income. The inheritance may be regarded as intermingled with relationship property because income generally is a relationship property asset, despite the income being received into a separate account. Ultimately, however, each case will depend on its own facts.

While inheritances often take the form of cash, the same principles apply to a house or any other type of property that has the potential to be intermingled. In the case of a house, although it is usually easily identifiable as the source of the inheritance, that might change if significant renovations are undertaken by both parties to the relationship, or if the house is sold and the money received from the sale is intermingled with other relationship money.


Protecting inheritance

If you know you are going to receive an inheritance and you wish to protect it, it is important that you get professional advice to discuss how the inheritance might be used and how it can be best protected. The best option for you will depend entirely on your circumstances and plans for the inheritance. Some common protections include:
• Keeping the inheritance completely separate either in a bank account set up for that purpose or in a separate investment in your sole name
• Establishing a trust to hold the inheritance and keep it separate from your relationship, or
• Having a contracting out agreement (prenup) prepared that sets out your separate property and the relationship property, and how all of that property would be divided if you separate or when one of you dies. These agreements can be entered into at any stage of the relationship.

No option is completely fool proof and each option has its own pros and cons.

If you are expecting an inheritance, or have recently received one, it can be a delicate topic to bring up with your spouse or partner. You may of course be perfectly happy to intermingle inherited property. It would, however, be prudent for you to talk first with us to discuss the options above and any implications that may bring to your relationship.


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Content Copyright © NZ LAW Limited, 2024. Editor Adrienne Olsen, e. m. 029 286 3650