Maine Divorce: Dividing Property

Find out how marital property and debts are divided in a Maine divorce.

By , Retired Judge
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor
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A couple's property is divided as part of divorce. But the laws on property division in divorce vary from state to state. Under Maine law, all marital property must be divided in a way that is equitable—meaning that it should be fair but not necessarily equal.

Is Maine a Community Property State?

No. Maine law follows what's known as "equitable distribution" when dividing property in a divorce. Basically, this means that judges will decide what's fair under the circumstances of each case—which doesn't necessarily mean an equal 50/50 split. (Learn more about the differences between community property rules and equitable division.)

Maine Divorce Laws on Marital Property and Separate Property

The first step in the process of dividing assets in a divorce is determining whether a couple's assets are "marital property" or "separate property" (sometimes called "nonmarital property" in Maine law). Spouses will keep their own separate property when they get divorced, but their marital property will be divided between them.

What Is Marital Property in Maine?

Maine law presumes that any property either spouse acquires during the marriage (up until the divorce or a legal separation decree) is marital property. That's true even if the property is in one spouse's name alone. However, you may counter that presumption by showing that some property acquired during the marriage actually qualifies as separate property (under the exceptions discussed below). (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 19-A, § 953(3) (2023).)

Typical examples of marital property include:

  • money that either spouse earns during the marriage
  • joint bank accounts
  • homes, motor vehicles, and furniture bought while the couple was married
  • the portion of retirement accounts (like 401(k)s) and pension plans that comes from contributions and appreciation during the marriage, and
  • a business that either spouse started during the marriage

What Is Separate Property in Maine?

Any earnings or other assets that spouses acquired before they married are their separate property. In addition, some property acquired during the marriage is separate property, such as:

  • assets that a spouse received through a gift or inheritance
  • assets acquired in exchange for property owned before marriage or received as a gift or inheritance (for example, a car that was paid for with inheritance money)
  • assets acquired after the court has issued a decree of legal separation in your marriage
  • any assets that both spouses agreed (in a valid written agreement) are one spouse's separate property, and
  • the increase in value of a spouse's separate property.

That last item on the list is more complicated than it might appear at first blush, because it might not always be easy to determine the reason for the increase in value. The bottom line is that if one spouse's separate property increased in value without any contribution (in money or labor) from the other spouse, the increase remains separate property. Here's an example of how that might work in practice:

  • Say one spouse owned a house before the marriage, and the value of that house goes up simply because the housing market improves. In that case, the full, current value of the house would be that spouse's separate property.
  • However, if the house increased in value at least partially because of improvements paid for with marital funds, the portion of the increase attributable to those improvements would likely be considered marital property that would be divided in the couple's divorce.

When Separate Property Can Become Marital Property

Sometimes spouses may convert separate property into marital property, wittingly or unwittingly. For example, if the spouse who owned a house before the marriage later changes the deed to include the other spouse as an owner, that house is presumably no longer separate property.

An action like changing title to a house is clearly intentional, and a spouse would be hard-pressed to claim it wasn't meant to change the character of the property from separate to marital. But there are occasions when a spouse may do something less clear-cut without realizing the consequences.

For example, let's say a spouse who received an inheritance deposits that money into a joint bank account. By commingling (mixing) those inheritance funds with marital funds, the spouse may have inadvertently converted the inheritance from a separate asset to a marital asset. Spouses who've done something like this might later claim it was never their intention to change the inheritance's separate-property status, but they would have to provide convincing evidence to counter the presumption that the entire account is marital property.

Assessing Property Value

After determining which property is marital property, the couple or the judge will need to decide what each item of property is worth. Some assets are easy to value, such as a bank account. But for others, like real estate or a business, you might need the assistance of a qualified appraiser.

It can be particularly difficult to calculate the value of a couple's interest in retirement accounts before splitting them in divorce. In all likelihood, you'll require the services of an actuary to get a correct valuation.

Dividing Marital Property in a Maine Divorce

As with any aspect of divorce, spouses have the right to agree between themselves how they'll divide their marital property by signing a "property settlement agreement." In fact, most couples settle any disputes in their divorce at some point in the process, rather than actually going to trial.

However, if couples can't agree on how to split up their marital property and allocate their debts, a judge will have to decide for them. In Maine, judges have broad discretion when they're dividing marital property, and they won't necessarily divide it equally. However, the judge must consider all relevant factors when deciding on a fair division, including:

  • each spouse's contribution to the acquisition of the marital property (this specifically includes a spouse's contribution as homemaker)
  • each spouse's economic circumstances as of the final property division (usually when the divorce is final), which includes whether it's desirable to award the family home to the spouse with custody of the children or to give that spouse the right to stay in the home for a reasonable amount of time
  • the value of each spouse's separate property, and
  • one spouse's "economic abuse" of the other spouse (exerting control over a spouse's financial resources as a way of making that spouse economically dependent).

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 19-A, §§ 953(1), 4102(5) (2023).)

Who Gets the House in a Maine Divorce?

Many couples' most valuable asset is the family home, so deciding who gets the house in divorce can be a big source of conflict. The easiest way to avoid an argument may be to agree to sell the house and divide the proceeds. But if a couple can't agree on this, the spouse who wants to sell will have to ask the judge to order a sale. And there's no guarantee a judge will go along with that.

The family home situation can be even more complicated when the couple has minor children. Often, the spouse who has primary residential custody of the children will want to stay in the family home so as not to uproot the kids. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. For instance:

  • If it's feasible economically, the spouse who wants to stay could buy out the other spouse, either by agreeing to give up enough other marital assets to even the scales or by refinancing the mortgage and using the proceeds to pay the other spouse.
  • If it's economically feasible, the couple could continue to co-own the house for a period of time after the divorce—such as until the youngest child enters or finishes college.

How Maine Divorce Law Treats Family Pets

Animals are treated like any other property under the law. But of course, most people have a deep emotional connection to their pets, and that complicates the issue of deciding where they'll go when the family splits up. Maine is one of a few states that have addressed this issue with specific rules for deciding who keeps pets in divorce. Before judges award ownership of a companion animal to one spouse, they must consider all relevant circumstances, including:

  • the pet's well-being and basic daily needs
  • how much time each spouse has spent taking care of the animal's needs during the marriage
  • a spouse's ability to provide adequate care for the pet going forward
  • each spouse's emotional attachment to the animal
  • if the couple has children, their emotional attachment to the pet and the benefit to the kids of having the animal stay where they primarily live, and
  • any history of domestic violence, animal abuse, or other unsafe conditions in the household.

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 19-A, § 953(10) (2023).)

Distributing Debt in Maine Divorce

In addition to dividing property in a divorce, a judge must also address how to divide a couple's debts (if they can't agree on how to do this). Debts that spouses took on before marriage—such as student loans—are not marital debt, and the spouse who incurred that debt will usually remain solely responsible for it.

Debts arising during the marriage are generally considered joint obligations, and both spouses will be liable for payment. Some examples would be a home mortgage, car loans, credit card bills, and medical expenses. But when a spouse receives a particular asset as part of the divorce, the debt attached to that property (such as the home mortgage) will ordinarily be that spouse's responsibility.

In some circumstances, a judge may decide that a debt incurred during the marriage shouldn't be deemed a joint obligation. For instance, you might see this when one of the spouses accumulated significant gambling debts during the marriage. In those cases, the judge could find that the spouse who incurred the debt should be the only one responsible for paying it.

Another important point to remember about debts is that creditors aren't bound by the terms of your divorce. So if your divorce judgment says that your ex is responsible for paying off a joint credit card, but it turns out payments are missing or late, the credit card company can come after you for the shortfall. You may go to court to request an order compelling your ex to comply with the divorce terms. In the meantime, however, your credit rating could take a hit. Because of this potential problem, it's a good idea to attempt to get as much marital debt as possible paid off from assets when finalizing the divorce. At the very least, keep an eye on the status of any loans or credit card accounts that still have your name on them.

Getting Help With the Property Division in Your Divorce

If you're having trouble reaching a property settlement agreement with your spouse, mediation may help. A qualified mediator can help you find solutions that will be fair to both of you. If you have a settlement agreement before you file for divorce, you can take advantage of the time and cost savings of an uncontested divorce in Maine, including being able to use an online divorce service to help with the forms. And mediation typically costs much less than a contested divorce.

But if you haven't been able to reach a complete agreement before you file for divorce in Maine, you may need the help of a family law attorney. (Learn more about when you can handle your own divorce and when you need a lawyer.)

Finally, you can find the details in Maine's divorce law on property division in Maine Revised Statutes Title19-A § 953.

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