Keep the House and Refinance the Mortgage

If either spouse wants to keep the family home after a divorce, refinancing is often necessary in order to “buy-out” the other spouse's interest in the property.

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Gavel and Scales

If you’re going through a divorce and want to keep the family home, you will likely have to buy-out your spouse by paying an amount equal to his or her interest in the home.

For example, let’s say that you (Sally) and your spouse (Tom) own a house valued at $300,000, subject to a mortgage with an outstanding balance of $200,000. Under this scenario, the equity in the house is $100,000. If you and Tom split your assets 50-50, you would each have $50,000 of equity. If you want to keep the home after the divorce, you will have to pay Tom his 50% share, or $50,000, to buy him out. Note that not all couples split their equity 50-50; this is discussed in more detail below.

Unless you have a large pile of cash sitting around that you can use to buy Tom out, or you have other assets you can give Tom in exchange for his share of the home, (for example, retirement funds), you will need to find an alternative.

A common way for divorcing spouses to accomplish a buy-out is to refinance the home (making sure the new loan is in buying spouse’s name alone), and take out enough cash from the home equity to pay the non-buying spouse his or her share. Once that's done, the home must also be transferred into the buying spouse’s name alone.

Your first step is to figure out your share of the “equity” in the home. Home equity is created when the value of your home increases and/or when you reduce the amount you owe on your home through your loan payments.

In order to determine the amount of equity – or ownership – you have in your home, you must:

  • value the house
  • subtract the outstanding mortgage balance, and
  • calculate your share of the remaining equity.

How Do I Value the House?

The first step in this process is to determine a current home value (meaning what it would sell for today). There are several ways to do this.

When spouses can agree on a home value

Some couples can easily agree on a home value. They can check local websites such as www.zillow.com or www.trulia.com, both of which provide estimated home values based on local comparable sales.

You can also look at the tax assessed value used by your city or county for the property taxes on the home, but this value is often unreliable.

The best way to determine a value may be for the two of you to ask a trusted real estate agent in your area, who may have more recent comparable sales and can give you a good estimate of what your home might sell for.

If you and your spouse can agree on a value, that agreed-upon amount should be included in your divorce settlement agreement, and/or any separate “stipulation” (written agreement) you enter into regarding the sale of the home. Make sure you are certain that the value is fair, especially if your spouse is more knowledgeable about real estate.

When spouses disagree on the home value

If there is any disagreement over the value of the home, or if you have any misgivings about your spouse's proposed home value, you should hire a professional real estate appraiser who can give you a reliable valuation.

A professional appraiser may charge between $300 - $400 (depending on the locale), but this fee may be well worth it, especially when you consider that judges are very likely to accept a certified appraiser’s valuation. 

 If you and your spouse are both unsure of the value but still capable of working together, you may want to select a joint appraiser (someone you hire together) and split the costs of the appraisal fee. This will save you time and money.

If the two of you cannot agree on an appraiser, you may each end up hiring your own appraiser and submitting competing appraisal reports to the court. In this case, a judge will decide which value seems most reliable.

How Do I Determine the Exact Mortgage Balance?

This is the easy part. You can get a “payoff” amount from the lender (bank or institution that holds your mortgage). Don’t forget to include any second mortgages, equity lines of credit, or other encumbrances (debts against the home) such as any liens.  

How do I Determine my Share of the Equity?

 The exact amount of your share in the home equity will depend on your state’s laws, your judge, and your ability to negotiate. Factors vary, but may include:

  • whether the house is a premarital asset (meaning whether you or your spouse purchased the home before the marriage with separate funds)
  • whether the home (or the home equity) is covered by a prenuptial agreement
  • whether you made any separate property or community property contributions to the home during the marriage (for example, whether you made payments toward the mortgage, property taxes and/or improvements, or whether you provided any physical labor toward improving the home), and
  • whether you live in a community property or equitable distribution state.

For more information on community property versus equitable distribution principles see, Property Division by State and Determining an Equitable Distribution of Community Property.

Laws vary dramatically by state, so be sure to obtain appropriate legal advice from an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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