What Duties Do Spouses Owe to Each Other?

What Duties Do Spouses Owe to Each Other?

You have probably heard the term “fiduciary” used in the context of business relationships. In a nutshell, married people have a fiduciary duty to one another in all matters involving marital property. Marital property is anything of value that is obtained or accumulated while a couple is married.

California Family Code § 721 provides that “in transactions between themselves, spouses are subject to the general rules governing fiduciary relationships . . ..” What exactly does that mean? It means a duty of “good faith and fair dealing” with one another. This code section also states that the duty is the same as between business partners who are not married.

In practical terms, each spouse is obligated to ensure that in any action that adds to or diminishes marital property, the interests of the other spouse are protected. Section 721 authorizes spouses to enter into transactions with third persons. This can range from very basic things like buying a television to more complex things like investing retirement funds. The fiduciary duty imposed by the law protects the spouse who is not involved in the transaction.

The general idea of a fiduciary relationship is that one party trusts another to act on her behalf in financial matters. This is true in various business relationships, such as banking and investments, as well as in matters of marital property. The person being trusted has a fiduciary duty to ensure to the greatest extent possible that the trusting person’s financial interests are not harmed.

In many marriages, one of the spouses manages the household finances without much involvement from the other. The managing spouse functions as a trustee of the other spouse’s interest in the marital assets. If the managing spouse harms the other’s interest by error or fraud, then the trusting spouse has a cause of action just as she would against a business partner.

When a marriage is dissolved, disputes often arise regarding management of the marital assets by one spouse or the other. If a spouse is found to have harmed the other’s interest in the marital assets, California Family Code § 1101 permits the court to award an offset to restore the harmed spouse’s share of the marital assets she lost as a result of a transaction. This is true whether or not the managing spouse intended to cause harm. If a spouse is found to have fraudulently harmed the other’s interest, a court is required to grant 100 percent of the value of the fraudulent transaction to the harmed spouse.

In an ideal world, a spouse would never act in a way that is detrimental to the other. But that is not always the case. If you are contemplating divorce or need advice regarding matters of marital property, you should consult with an experienced California lawyer. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger are experienced in difficult divorce proceedings and what it takes to sort out complexities in the marital estate. Call today to see how we can help you: (415) 293-8314.


The Intentional Breach of a Spouse's Fiduciary Duty

The Intentional Breach of a Spouse’s Fiduciary Duty

A fiduciary duty is one in which one party owes another the highest duty of care. For example, someone serving as an executor of an estate has a duty to handle its property and finances with the utmost care. An executor cannot misappropriate money or steal property belonging to the estate, or he may be liable for damages.

Similarly, California law places a fiduciary duty on each spouse to act in the best interest of the other spouse. California Family Code § 721 explains that spouses have “a duty of the highest good faith and fair dealing” with each other and that “neither shall take any unfair advantage of the other.” This fiduciary duty includes three core components: (1) allowing access to records of financial transactions; (2) providing accurate and complete information about community property transactions; and (3) treating benefits and profits from certain community property transactions fairly and accounting to the other spouse for them.

In addition, California law provides a duty of full disclosure regarding all community assets. The duty applies during the period of marriage and after the parties separate, until the item is divided by the court or the parties. Indeed, the California laws regarding divorce provide a formal method by which the assets and liabilities of each party are disclosed to the other.

What happens if one spouse does not perform his or her fiduciary duties? The failure to perform these duties is a called a “breach,” and the law sets forth what happens when there is a breach. The consequence that is imposed depends upon the seriousness of the breach and the view of the family court.

Examples of ways that parties may breach their fiduciary duties include hiding assets or transferring assets to try to deprive the other spouse of any interest in them. The law provides several remedies, or consequences, for a breach of spousal fiduciary duties, including the following:

  • A court-ordered accounting and determination of rights of ownership;
  • The placement of the name of a party on the title of an asset;
  • An award of either 50% of an undisclosed or transferred asset or of an amount of money to compensate the injured party for the loss of interest in that asset; and
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs.
In particularly egregious cases, the family court can order the breaching party to give the injured party the whole asset or to pay the injured party its full value . When fraud, oppression, or malice have been adequately proven, the court may award punitive damages, designed to punish the breaching party . It is sometimes necessary to hire a forensic accountant to show that a spouse intentionally breached his or her fiduciary duty. A forensic accountant is trained to trace funds and assets, which can help demonstrate that a spouse intended to hide or misappropriate community assets.

Breach of the spousal fiduciary duty is serious wrongdoing. If you are concerned that your spouse may be attempting to hide or minimize assets, you need an aggressive lawyer who will fight on your behalf. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger have extensive experience in contested divorce and property proceedings. Call today to learn how our attorneys can protect your property interests as you go through this difficult time: (415) 293-8314.