Understanding the Spousal Fiduciary Duty

Posted September 9, 2016 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

Marriage prompts a lot of change—last names, bank accounts, estate plans, housing—but one of the most important changes that arrives once you say “I do” is a fiduciary duty to your new spouse. Fiduciary duty may sound like a term reserved for the boardroom, but a broad fiduciary relationship exists between married spouses as well.

At the most basic level and as prescribed by California Family Code § 721, spouses possess a duty of “the highest good faith and fair dealing,” and “neither spouse shall take any unfair advantage of the other.”  Further, the spousal fiduciary duty includes “the same rights and duties of nonmarital business partners” as outlined in the California Corporations Code.  Although the Corporations Code uses business-centric language, the Family Code incorporates partner-based duties and applies them to spouses.  Thus, spousal fiduciary duties include:  1) allowing access to transaction books, 2) providing full and true information about any community property, and 3) an accounting of any benefit derived from any community property transaction by one spouse without consent of the other spouse.  Additionally, spouses owe each other a duty of loyalty—spouses must refrain from dealing with each other as an adverse interest and must refrain from competing with each other—and a duty of care.

Returning to the Family Code, Section 1100 details the fiduciary duties that accompany the control and management of community property.  Of note is subsection (b): “a spouse may not make a gift of community personal property for less than fair and reasonable valuable, without the written consent of the other spouse.”  In other words, even when giving a community fund-purchased gift to his/her children, a spouse needs the written consent of the non-purchasing spouse.  Typically, a nonconsenting spouse is unlikely to challenge holiday and birthday gifts given to his/her own children, but that spouse does have the legal ability to void the gift and receive compensation for its value—an issue usually raised during a separation or divorce proceeding.

Importantly, even after spouses separate or file for divorce, they still owe a fiduciary duty to one another—until all assets and liabilities have been officially divided, spouses must act with respect to each other and fully disclose all material facts and information regarding community property or debts.

Ultimately, most spouses don’t actually keep (or legally, even have to keep) detailed transaction books in the manner expected of business partners, nor do most spouses actually ask for formal consent before making routine purchases, but it is important to note that unilateral transactions could be used as ammunition in a separation or divorce proceeding.  Therefore, if you are pondering a large purchase or gift, it is wise to document the process, seek the written consent of your spouse, and/or use your own separate property to make the purchase.

If you would like more information about the fiduciary duty you owe to your spouse, please contact the experienced family law attorneys at Lonich & Patton.  From pre-nuptial agreements to divorce proceedings, we can help you understand how the spousal fiduciary duty plays a role in your marriage.

Lastly, please remember that each individual situation is unique, and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Sources:

California Family Code § 721

California Family Code § 1100

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