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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.